Surrey’s NDP MLAs are not raring to lobby the provincial government cabinet to call a regional referendum on Surrey’s policing transition.
Last week, Elections BC announced that an initiative petition calling for a referendum on the issue failed.
The Surrey Police Vote Citizens Initiative Campaign collected 42,942 signatures from Surrey residents who want a referendum held on the transition. That’s just 2,622 shy of the 45,564 votes Mayor Doug McCallum, champion of the controversial policing switchover, received in the 2018 civic election.
But Elections BC determined it failed because under the Recall and Initiative Act a petition must gather signatures from at least 10 per cent of the registered voters in each of the province’s 87 electoral districts to succeed. Still, the petitioners hope cabinet will call a regional referendum under the B.C. Referendum Act , given the large number of signatures collected in Surrey, which was well over the 10 per cent threshold locally.
Bill Tieleman, a strategist for that petition campaign notes that the provincial government under the Referendum Act has the power through cabinet to order a referendum on Surrey policing at any point in time.
“And so we will continue to push the provincial government to hold a referendum so that Surrey voters can have a democratic decision on whether they want to retain the RCMP or go to the proposed Surrey Police Service.”
He said his group has made an official presentation to the government seeking a regional referendum, “which we’re not releasing publicly at this point but we will be looking forward to an official response, we don’t have that yet.”
While Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum says it’s “clearly time to move on,” Coun. Brenda Locke maintains the fight is still “absolutely game on” and it’s time for Surrey’s NDP MLAs “to take heat.”
“They have to know that they have a responsibility now to tell their cabinet, take heat to their cabinet, and say you have a decision to make now on behalf of the residents of Surrey,” Locke argues. “The residents of Surrey have spoken loud and clear.”
And so the Now-Leader set about asking Surrey’s seven NDP MLAs where they land on that proposition.
Mike Starchuk, MLA for Surrey-Cloverdale, did not personally reply but an NDP communications officer did on his behalf, saying he is “unfortunately currently unavailable.”
Nor did government whip Garry Begg, MLA for Surrey-Guildford.
Jagrup Brar, MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, had this to say: “It is a city matter, the City of Surrey council made a decision, a unanimous decision at that time, to move forward for this transition and the province is just facilitating this process, so that’s where we are right now and that’s what I know.”
“I’m not in the cabinet.”
Rachna Singh, MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers, echoed that. “Our stance has been always that this was a decision made by the City of Surrey and we have been supporting the City of Surrey with that,” she said. But she says she’ll definitely discuss the matter with Surrey’s other NDP MLAs.
Singh said she thinks it’s their responsibility to bring to the public safety minister and solicitor general what they are hearing from constituents. “If this is what people are saying,” she said, she will “definitely” bring it up with the minister “that this is what we are hearing, and pass it on to him.”
“Definitely this is something that is coming in my office. I will bring it over to the minister.”
Rachna Singh, NDP MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers. (Image: Hansard TV)
Jinny Sims, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, says she and the six other Surrey NDP MLAs are in a “very difficult position” because Surrey council unanimously requested that the Surrey RCMP be replaced with a city-made police force.
“It is the decision of Surrey council, that’s the division of power that exists. The only role the province has is to make sure the transition is done so that public safety is not put at risk,” Sims said.
“I’m very, very disturbed by this because at the time that we’ve got so much other stuff to be focused on an incredible amount of resources are going into this. I’m not saying I agreed with the process that was used locally by the city; I understand people who say they didn’t feel consulted because that is one thing we do pride ourselves on. At the same time time, we’re in a position when considerable monies have been spent by the province and the city and where do you go from here?”
Sims said she’d “love” to hear the arguments for going ahead with a referendum “but not in a political sense, more in a governance sense.”
“I will definitely discuss with my other NDP colleagues from Surrey because I think that once people put a request to us it behooves us to sit down and have a very serious look. At the same time, I do acknowledge they did not meet the criteria nor did they try to, that Elections BC put on them.”
Sims thinks the public is more concerned about the process than anything else.
“I’m not sure a referendum would undo the process,” she told the Now-Leader. “It is a very difficult situation – there isn’t a black-and-white answer in this one, that’s why I will say I will certainly sit down with my Surrey colleagues and engage all of us in a conversation because there is a lot of information even I don’t have.”
Jinny Sims, NDP MLA for Surrey-Panorama. (Photo: John Boivin)
The City of Surrey, Sims noted, is in charge of the “costing side” of the policing transition and this has “very little” to do with the provincial government.
“And we can’t force them to share the costing. And so we’re caught between jurisdiction, we’re caught between a mayor and a council – the majority now, not unanimous.”
Moreover, she asks rhetorically, do we have a referendum every time we don’t agree with what our government is doing? “Every decision of the council council could then be open to a referendum once you start setting precedents. The best – the best – venue for people to let the council know whether they like or do not like what they have done is our electoral process, and that’s coming up fairly soon,” Sims said.
Sims noted that she and her Surrey MLA colleagues have to look at the issue through the lens of governance, “and from a governance point of view, we do not have governance through referendum. Then, you don’t need to elect city council.”
“On the other hand, I’m very sympathetic with the feelings of people who feel unheard, people who don’t feel consulted and people who feel they don’t have the full information about budget impacts,” she added.
Surrey-Newton MLA and Minister of Labour Harry Bains, who, like Ralston, has a cabinet seat, also pointed out that city council in its inaugural meeting in December 2018 unanimously passed a resolution to move ahead with Surrey’s own police force.
“That’s when it started, I think it’s the city’s decision, they are the one who needs to deal with this. The province is only accommodating what the city had asked us and I think if a person is going back and forth, back and forth, I think it is a real risk to the health and safety of people, and the security of people,” Bains said.
“This issue is moving ahead and I think as soon as we have Surrey Police officers on the street I think it’s better and just move on then, because that’s the decision the city made. It’s not the province’s decision, we’re not interfering with their decision and we’re complying.”
The City of Surrey has the right to cancel it’s contract with the Surrey RCMP under the Police Act, Bains noted. “They asked us to accommodate the transition to a new police force, and that’s what we are doing.”
Still, asked if has an appetite to take to his cabinet colleagues the concept of calling a referendum, Bains replied that nobody has approached him yet but if and when they do, his answer will remain the same.
“It’s the city’s decision, we don’t want to interfere with the city’s decision,” Bains said. “This group needs to deal with the city.”
However, he added, concerns about transparency and cost related to the Surrey’s policing transition process “are all legit questions, and I think the citizens of Surrey deserve answers on those and I think they should be asking those questions of the city and the city council should be giving those answers.”
Asked if he has an appetite to bring the matter to cabinet, Surrey-Whalley NDP MLA Bruce Ralston, the city’s other cabinet minister, replied that ”the short answer is no.”
“I’m respectful of the views of my colleagues who of course are representatives of people in Surrey and I certainly will listen to them but at this point I am not persuaded that this is anything other than a matter for the City of Surrey,” Ralston said. “I’m not persuaded that this is a matter for a referendum. The City of Surrey is responsible for delivering the police services and the transition is well underway.”
Locke’s response is that the public has spoken “very loud and very clear” on this “and if they chose to ignore that, that’s their call.
“I attended a lot of those signing events and I can tell you, the public was angry,” Locke said. Originally she supported the transition, but then changed her mind and became an outspoken critic because of concerns raised about transparency and cost.
“Many of them just wanted their say and if the MLAs who report to Victoria are not going to report what the residents in their community are saying, then that’s their call but I think that the public expects the Surrey MLAs to represent them, to represent that community, to Victoria,” she said. “Not to represent Victoria to the community, but to represent the wishes of the people in that community to Victoria.”
“They either represent Victoria to their riding, or their riding to Victoria,” Locke said, “and they have to make that decision. For me as a resident, I would hope they’re going to be representing the citizens of Surrey to Victoria and if they can’t speak to the minister, I’m surprised by that.”
Tieleman said he’s disappointed but not surprised by the MLAs comments here.
“We’re asking for a democratic referendum on Surrey policing, and that is an appropriate use of the Referendum Act,” he said. “We don’t give up easily, and we’re not going to.”