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BUCHOLTZ: Surrey police controversy will continue to dog the B.C. NDP

Police transition has been poorly handled by both provincial and municipal leaders
The controversy over the Surrey police transition shows no signs of abating. (Surrey Police patch from Twitter. Surrey RCMP photo by Anna Burns)

By Frank Bucholtz, columnist

The Surrey Police transition controversy will almost certainly continue right up to the provincial election in October.

The province has been trying to ease the controversy, to keep the transition from becoming a political yoke around the necks of the 10 NDP candidates in Surrey. It appeared to be getting somewhere — with an offer of additional funding to ease the transition costs to be borne by Surrey taxpayers. Last week, the city rejected the offer after weeks of closed-door negotiations.

The war of words immediately resumed. It also emerged that, while Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth announced he would soon set a date of transition giving SPS command of policing, the province actually does not have the power to tell RCMP officers to be commanded by another police agency.

Farnworth brushed that off — just as he and other NDP MLAs from the premier on down have been doing over other policing concerns for years. At what point does the competency of the NDP government to properly deal with this issue start to be questioned?

The transition to Surrey Police was approved by Farnworth in 2020. He did not call for a referendum to be held first, which would have been the best way to ensure that a decision on a change in policing would have been specifically endorsed by voters.

The simple fact is, both the NDP government and the city council at that time (with a majority of votes controlled by former mayor Doug McCallum) did not want any public input. The lack of clear information about the costs of the transition have made it clear that citizens’ role is to shut up and pay.

By the time of the October 2022 municipal election, the transition had advanced to the point that unwinding it would be both difficult and costly. Brenda Locke beat McCallum to become mayor by a small margin.

The race for mayor had five major candidates. While the police transition was the underlying issue in the campaign, it is impossible to say that the vote was a simple referendum on that issue alone. McCallum wasn’t far behind Locke, and the other three major candidates — MP Sukh Dhalkiwal, MLA Jinny Sims and former MP, MLA and White Rock Mayor Gordon Hogg — took widely varying positions on the issue.

The NDP government cannot avoid the fact that it has imposed this costly transition on Surrey taxpayers without any meaningful input from them. The provincial election will be fought on many issues. Policing in Surrey won’t be an issue in other constituencies — but it will be in Surrey.

Even if an upcoming judicial review states that Surrey council can continue to try to unwind the transition, it will be an issue. Locke will campaign hard against “the NDP Surrey Tax.”

The transition has been very poorly handled by both provincial and municipal leaders. They have ignored concerns of their constituents, at a time when almost everyone is facing significant financial challenges.

As provincial elections attract far more voters than municipal elections do, voters’ perspectives on the policing issue will become obvious. They must be taken into consideration.

Frank Bucholtz writes every second week for Black Press Media publications.