COLUMN: Dianne Watts a difficult act to follow

Surrey mayor's success still leaves challenges for the next incoming mayor of the city

Dianne Watts is that rarest of politicians — someone who actually does what she said she would do.

What makes Surrey’s mayor particularly unique is that the promise she made came nine years ago. She said then that she had no plans to serve more than three terms. She fulfilled that pledge on Saturday, announcing at the open house for the new city hall that she would not seek another term as mayor.

I remember discussing that specific point with her, early in her first term. But, like many other people, that specific pledge slipped my mind.

Having dealt with hundreds of politicians in more than 35 years of writing about municipal politics, I’ve become used to them doing 180s. It’s almost part of the DNA of a successful politician.

But Watts is different, and that is one of the things that has endeared her to a large number of Surrey residents, voters and non-voters alike.

Contrast her with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who will be seeking his third term as mayor this fall. When first elected, he pledged to end street homelessness by 2015. It was a very difficult promise, and naturally he has backed away. In fact, homelessness is a bigger problem than ever in Vancouver.

Watts will leave office with an impressive resume. She had, for the most part, united council and had it working as a team. This is a rare, if not unique, occurrence in Surrey.

(Coun. Barinder Rasode’s bolting of the Surrey First team several weeks ago shows just how difficult it is to hold fractious politicians together.)

Watts led the drive for the new city hall and for intense redevelopment of Whalley, to turn it into Surrey city centre. This process is well underway, although much remains to be done.

She also led council into agreeing to more intense development of parks and recreation facilities than before.

She initiated pride in Surrey, something that citizens greatly appreciate. There are few Surrey jokes today.

She has been a good spokesman for Surrey in the regional arena, where many of the key decisions are made, such as those involving transportation.

While other Metro Vancouver politicians have yet to step up to the plate and commit to additional transit in Surrey, Watts has not bad-mouthed them. Instead, she has consistently stated Surrey’s case.

She has also had good relationships with federal and provincial politicians of all political stripes.

There are two areas where Surrey is falling behind, in the view of many residents, as a poll released Monday indicates.

Surrey residents are not happy with the growing transportation challenges, such as the tolls on two bridges (and none on others), lack of commitment to rapid transit expansion, lack of new bus routes, unfulfilled promises on bus routes over the Port Mann Bridge and others.

The other area has perhaps been Watts’ Achilles heel.

That is a deep and widespread concern about crime and policing.

The murder of Julie Paskall outside the Newton Arena in late December galvanized public concerns about Surrey’s high homicide rate last year. While the mayor had set up a task force, many people felt the reaction from city hall was very slow.

Surrey RCMP are generally respected, but the actual number of police officers on the street is low compared to other big cities, and high-crime areas are of particular concern to many residents.

Surrey needs a substantial boost in the visibility of police officers on the streets and in the community.

Adding substantially to policing budgets won’t come cheap, and will mean a big boost in taxes – something council has been reluctant to do. However, no community can grow the way Surrey has without proper attention to policing.

Watts has been a good leader for Surrey, Her successor will have immediate challenges, and they won’t be easy to deal with.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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