LAC LA BICHE - Been there. Done that. Ate the lasagna.
Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi says a recent decision by the majority of council is hoped to put a recent controversy behind them and clear a path forward.
Moghrabi is still facing some fallout from a restaurant lunch date he had two weeks ago with neighbouring municipal officials inside a Bonnyville restaurant that was under provincial COVID-19 health orders restricting dine-in services. The meeting, with MD of Bonnyville Reeve Greg Sawchuk and Town of Bonnyville Mayor Gene Sobolewski, was a staged media event intended to draw attention to the frustrations of local businesses coping with provincial pandemic restrictions. Instead, it drew mixed reviews. Last Tuesday, a week after their mayor ordered a now controversial lasagna lunch, Lac La Biche County councillors voted down a request to issue a formal press release denouncing the meeting.
At council's most recent public meeting, councillor George L'Heureux made an emergent request, urging that a formal statement be issued on behalf of the municipality, distancing council from the mayor's actions that defied provincial regulations.
L'Heureux said that while the mayor's decision to show support for small business and restaurants might have been intended in good taste, his decision to defy the province's health orders was hard to swallow.
At Tuesday's meeting, L'Heureux said he wanted to see a formal statement saying the mayor acted on his own accord. Basing his request on "three dozen phone calls asking for it," L'Heureux told council he didn't want to be seen by residents or provincial government officials as supporting the mayor's "disregard" for the Government of Alberta's COVID-19 restrictions.
"To direct Administration to draft a press release regarding the position of Lac La Biche County with respect to the provincial Health Orders, the press release should entail the following: Acknowledge that Mayor Moghrabi acted on his own accord, with respect to recent media attention, pertaining to supporting small business during the COVID-19 health pandemic, and that his actions do not reflect the will of Council."
Reaction around the council table was mixed. While most said they agreed with the sentiment, not all were in favour of making a formal statement. The decision to make the statement was defeated in a 6-3 vote.
"I'm not going to support (the motion) but I was very surprised when I saw you on TV," said councillor Colette Borgun to the mayor before the vote. "I hope it doesn't affect our relationship with the provincial government."
Councillor Sterling Johnson voted for the motion, joining L'Heureux and councillor Darlene Beniuk.
Johnson based his vote on what he felt was a breach of trust.
"You knew what you were going to do, and you didn't tell council what you were doing," he told Moghrabi. "There's teamwork involved here, and not just going out one-on-one ... going out to do only what you want."
Following the vote Moghrabi told Lakeland This Week he understands the disappointment, and has "taken some lumps" — but in no way did he attend the lunch to disrespect his council, local residents, business owners, the province or health professionals.
"One of the big things I do regret is that people said I was doing it against our health people. In no way was I doing that. I'm proud of the work we have all done to support our health workers," Moghrabi said. "I have apologized for that. To disrespect our health workers was not my intention for going there."
Drawing attention to the frustrations of small businesses, restaurants and rural Alberta remains the mayor's focus. He is hoping the community can move forward, accept what he did, and move on.
"Sometimes you cross that line — and once you've crossed it there's no use making excuses," Moghrabi said. "At the end of the day, you have to close it off and move ahead. And one of those parts was settled in council with the vote. I think we still have a big fight on our hands with COVID and we need to focus on that."
Following the defeated vote, L'Heureux accepted it as a decision of council, and defended his decision to call for the statement. He hopes the issue will serve as a lesson-learned.
"There’s nothing better than having our restaurants open, but you have to do it the right way. I fully support them, but I don’t think that breaking protocols is the way to go about it," he said. "Whether you agree with it or not, there's ways to go about lobbying for it ... and this was not it."
Lac La Biche County councillors are expected to be discussing some new support methods to raise awareness for local business in the coming days.
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