A contentious discussion took place near the end of the Woodlands County Council meeting on September 21. During Council Reports, Councillor Jim Rennie said the RCMP had contacted him over "recent fake news posted on social media regarding Woodlands County." The post he was referring to had included a video featuring audio taken from a Woodlands County Council meeting back in August. "I've never had so many calls, emails or messages regarding the clarification on the misuse of information. People were so furious to learn they had been fooled," he said.
Several weeks ago, a video shared online of Councillor Ron Govenlock speaking about gun use in Woodlands County drew fire. He mentioned that he wanted Administration to look into the legal options they had to deal with the use of firearms; however, the clip was missing the context of his statement. Residents had expressed concern that one resident was using his property as a gun range within 100m of other homes. He told his fellow councillors that the residents had tried speaking to the resident, which didn't work, and had even called the RCMP. Wanting to represent his residents, Councillor Govenlock brought the issue to Council, seeking advice on their legal options. Since it was happening until late at night, he wondered if it would fall under a noise violation or other similar bylaw. As a gun owner, he stated clearly that this wasn't about gun control. It was about dealing with one specific case. The clip shared online made it sound like Councillor Govenlock wanted to impose gun laws on Woodlands County residents.
When it was Councillor Govenlock's turn to share his report, he took it as an opportunity to address the situation. He said the video was made by a "fairly well-known member of the community" and asked Mayor Burrows if he was familiar with the clip, to which Mayor Burrows responded yes. Councillor Govenlock then asked if he felt the video accurately reflected what took place at the meeting on August 16. "I'm not under interrogation by you at the moment. If your opinion is that it didn't accurately reflect something... I had nothing to do with the actual video. If you want to make more allegations, then go ahead," was Mayor Burrows' response.
Councillor Govenlock then asked if the mayor had taken any steps to correct the misinformation. Mayor Burrows said no. Councillor Govenlock then asked Mayor Burrows if anybody on Council asked him to address the matter. Mayor Burrows again said no. Councillor Govenlock quickly responded, asking, "Councillor Kluin didn't call you asking why you hadn't responded to the misinformation?" Mayor Burrows stated that Councillor Govenlock could allege anything he wanted and then asked him for his Councillor Report.
"Those are serious questions, Mr. Burrows. When somebody attempts to portray a video as an official Woodlands County video and pretends that the information in that video reflected the discussions at the meeting, it puts the County in a very unprofessional perspective," said Councillor Govenlock. In wanting to set the record straight, Councillor Govenlock said he asked to post a letter on the County's social media but wasn't allowed. He then made a motion to have his letter posted. Though several councillors voiced agreement in getting the correct information out to the public, they disagreed on Councillor Govenlock doing it independently. "It needs to be coming from you as a representative for all of us," said Councillor Kluin to Mayor Burrows.
"Somebody needs to show that leadership," continued Councillor Govenlock. "Not only does it misrepresent the facts, but I have received a number of rather malicious emails and phone calls and one threatening my life. When individuals are as reckless as the author of this stuff, legal sanctions need to be taken."
Mayor Burrows felt allegations were being made against him. "I'm not responsible for what somebody else does. I really resent the fact that you are trying to paint me in this light. If the RCMP want to lay charges, then I guess that's up to them." Councillor Govenlock retorted. "When you are withholding information, you are distorting the information every bit as much as if you do the cut and paste as this individual did to distort and defame."
Councillor McQueen asked Councillor Kluin if he had spoken to Mayor Burrows as Councillor Govenlock had said he had. Councillor Kluin noted that he had called Mayor Burrows. "I said that we needed to get something out to the public to address the concerns and explain exactly what happened. You (Mayor Burrows) said we needed to bring it up at the next meeting," said Councillor Kluin. Councillor McQueen said, "it made it look like we had done it. I thought we should have some kind of leadership here that would show that we didn't do that."
Councillor Govenlock said he believed the individual responsible for the video was someone who had previously targeted Councillor Rennie. "The municipality must make sure that the things put out representing council decisions are accurate, and that didn't happen. Mr. Burrows didn't take the action necessary to correct the statements made. This particular individual is looking for one more vote to turn around the lawsuit that Woodlands County is using to enforce regulations pertaining to his development. I might be the target this time, but someone else will be a target if we don't act."
CAO Gordon Frank quickly stepped in and recommended that Council enter a closed session (private), as the information discussed could have legal ramifications. Minutes later, he suggested it again, but Mayor Burrows said, "I think I'd like to have all the smears out in public if you'd like to continue the conversation, Councillor Govenlock?" Councillor Rennie then made a motion that Council get the mayor to make a statement on Woodlands County's social media stating that Woodlands County did not produce the video and that the information was not contextually correct.
Councillors Kusch and Prestidge, and Mayor Burrows, voted against putting out a statement. With Councillor Govenlock no longer in the meeting, the tied vote was defeated. Mayor Burrows commented that Councillor McQueen hadn't even seen the video and called the whole thing a witch hunt. Councillor McQueen responded wildly. "I didn't accuse you of any of that, (expletive), and you know (expletive) well that I don't (expletive) around with Facebook. I had enough people tell me what was on there and how that thing was chopped up, and I trust the people I was dealing with. I'm really wondering how I trust any of you anymore, and it's very obvious from the way that this motion just played out. Whose afraid to talk about it? Whose afraid to put the note out saying it was all (expletive)?" Moments later, Council entered a closed session.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press