Sitting in her office Friday morning, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts was calm and relaxed, despite being in the maelstrom of a civic re-election campaign.
Watts has reason to feel comfortable.
A recent national poll indicates 68 per cent of people in Surrey like the job she’s doing, and 54 per cent of those asked say they intend to put her back in office.
However, running in a municipal race is a grind, she admits, adding it’s the only level of government where incumbents are expected to continue doing their job while campaigning.
This campaign, Watts, 52, will be standing on her record.
She says her most notable accomplishments in the past three years have been creating substantial policies, including the Homelessness and Housing Foundation and an Ecosystem Management Study, as well as a waging a successful fight for better transportation south of the Fraser.
One of Watts’ key policy initiatives was the Build Surrey Program, which features about $175 million in capital projects over the next few years, including several all-weather fields, a performing arts centre, the new City Centre Library and a new city hall in Whalley.
She’s been receiving heat from her opponents in this election for spending $50 million (some estimate $90 million when interest is calculated) on that city hall, but she defends the expenditure.
“When we’re designated the second metropolitan core of the region, you need to build a downtown core,” Watts said, adding the area will encompass Simon Fraser University, the library, a performing arts centre and a municipal hall.
“You look at where a city hall should be situated. It needs to be close to transportation.”
She also notes that for the first time in years, Surrey has freed up a housing fund for the Homelessness and Housing Foundation.
“We’ve given almost $2 million to non-profit organizations to assist in dealing with homelessness and affordable housing issues,” Watts said.
She’s also proud of the city’s green initiatives, particularly the Ecosystem Management Study, which analyzed the state of the environment by examining all factors affecting local ecosystems.
Surrey is also creating a biofuel facility in Port Kells to turn green waste into gas, which will be used to fuel garbage trucks.
Watts said the city’s eco-friendly initiatives have been recognized by the Fraser Basin Council and other organizations.
“We have the largest urban wildlife corridor out of any city in the country,” Watts said.
She also pointed to the district energy systems that will used geothermal energy for heating and other power-saving schemes for densely populated areas, such as City Centre, Grandview Heights and the area near Surrey Memorial Hospital.
In some areas, that may include incineration of things such as wood chips (but not waste), Watts acknowledged, but “that depends on which technology.”
Regional officials say some of the best practices for a waste incinerator is to have it near highly populated areas so the heat can be used to warm district homes and businesses.
Watts said garbage incineration is a non-starter for her and will not happen in Surrey during her term in office.
“I wouldn’t want that; that’s not what I would have envisioned,” Watts said. “It’s not just dealing with that technology, you’re dealing with what comes to feed that plant. I don’t want hundreds of garbage trucks coming into the City of Surrey and burning garbage.”
She also said Surrey has made great headway in transportation.
“Forty-five per cent of the (transit and transportation) expansion is going to come south of the Fraser.”
While Watts has been criticized for voting in favour of a two-cent-per-litre hike in gas taxes to pay for transportation initiatives, she said something had to be done.
The population of seniors in Surrey will grow by 179 per cent in 15 years, while the growth in youth is also on the rise.
“Even though there are tough decisions to be made, we’ve got to look into the future, because I guarantee you, the majority of seniors are going to be wanting to get on that bus,” Watts said. “As will our students.”
Asked what she would do differently, she was hard-pressed to come up with something, saying she lives her life without regrets.
That said, in hindsight, she said she would have asked for a performance bond on a casino property that was rezoned and flipped in Newton earlier this year. It would have ensured the promised $25 million in improvements were built.
“That is one of the things that really annoys me, is around that casino,” Watts said. “There were expectations and commitments that were made by the previous owners that were not lived up to.”
As for the next three years, Watts intends to finish the Build Surrey program and implement initiatives within the Crime Reduction Strategy.
“The sobering centre will be finished, and we’ve renewed our call for the community court,” Watts said.
She said the city will also be pushing forward with the transportation issues facing the city.
Watts also wants to move bylaws away from its current strategy of responding to complaints only.
She wants to have a multi-department strategy, where engineering, parks, and other departments are reporting bylaw infractions.
‘Culture of disrespect’
Ross Buchanan was compelled to run for mayor because of what he sees as “out-of-control, reckless spending at city hall.”
In Surrey’s 2010 financial statement, Buchanan says it refers to a population growth of 4.3 per cent over a five-year period.
“During that time, (operational) spending increased 41.3 per cent,” Buchanan said. “We’ve outstripped population growth 10 to one.”
The number of employees at city hall also increased from 2,200 to 3,000 in that time, he said.
There are a number of areas where Buchanan, who is a business consultant, would cut spending.
“I wouldn’t have given the cowboys at Cloverdale Rodeo another quarter-million (dollars) to prop up the purse,” Buchanan said. “I wouldn’t have spent a quarter-million (dollars) on the green wall at the South Surrey library.
“I see waste like that all over the place,” he said.
He also wants to see an immediate halt to the construction of the new city hall in North Surrey, which comes with a price tag of $50 million, which he says balloons to $90 million once interest on the loan is paid.
He wants a full public consultation and a study as to whether it’s appropriate to spend that kind of money in these economic times.
Buchanan, 59, believes Surrey has lost its engagement with the public.
“People feel so removed, so abandoned,” Buchanan said. “I hear stories every day from people who say they can’t even get a phone call back from their councillors. In fact, that’s why you can’t get phone calls back from staff either.”
He said it comes from a “culture of disrespect” at city hall toward its citizens.
Buchanan said the cure to that will be a shift in culture that starts from the top.
“It starts from the mayor and council respecting the citizens and including the citizens,” he said.
He believes the mayor could spend less on media communications staff and more on citizen advocates. He also wants to build a city that works for families, rather than catering to big business.
And he wants far more bylaw enforcement addressing issues such as illegal construction and secondary suites.
“We have bylaws, enforce them.”
However, topping Buchanan’s list is catching the attention of senior levels of government.
“My number-one priority focus would be representing and fighting for the citizens of Surrey,” Buchanan said. “It’s shameful that we’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to education, we’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to transportation and the bottom of the list when it comes to public health.”
As mayor, Vikram Bajwa says he will bring transparency to city hall.
“They do everything behind closed doors,” the 51-year-old realtor and developer said. “Who has the record?”
He said he would hold more meetings in a public setting.
The realtor and developer has signed a contract with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation promising he won’t raise taxes beyond the provincial rate of inflation and if he does, he will be fined 15 per cent of his pay for a year.
He also wants to have a municipal police force rather than the RCMP.
“We would follow the Vancouver model,” Bajwa said. “They have retrained their officers more for (crime) prevention than anything else.”
He said the first thing Surrey needs in order to fix these things is a ward system.
“It’s something the South Asian community is screaming for, and it’s something we could all benefit from,” Bajwa said.
Wards would see once councillor represent a particular area, or ward, rather than the whole city, as in the current at-large system.
“Right now, in the absence of a ward system, people don’t know who to go to – they go to everyone, no one responds, then they go to staff, and no one responds. The absence of a ward system is just an excuse for councillors and staff not to be accountable.”
Under-served by transit
Deanna Welters says transit is the big issue for her. If Surrey had a proper light rail system and fast buses, it would take a lot of pressure off the affected thoroughfares, she said.
Welters said the use of the interurban rail line, on existing tracks, would also help greatly.
“Surrey has been under-served for 40 years.”
She also said “lack of a real community sense” is an issue for her.
Referring to an email from a young person in Surrey, she believes a positive community feel is eroding.
She thinks Surrey could insist on better building design, pointing to some highrises in Vancouver that have a townhome design on the lower floors.
Welters said there are some developments in North Surrey with no front door, with access only through a parkade. That, she said, doesn’t add to a feeling of community.
Third on her list of issues is the environment.
“How are we protecting nature and how many mature trees get cut in this city that really should be spared?” Welters asked. “We have to think of conservation in this city because it really does matter.”
She also believes Surrey has to deal with its homelessness issue, finding the root causes and helping people overcome them.
Bring on wards
Shan Rana wants to see a ward system in Surrey, and he plans to take the city to B.C. Supreme Court to force the system here.
Rana has participated in municipal elections both in Surrey and Toronto.
“The reason I participated here, is I didn’t see a ward system which I saw in the rest of Canada,” Rana said, who, in his retirement, describes himself as a professional activist.
“This time I’m taking the city and British Columbia government to the Supreme Court to challenge the existing at-large system.”
No more land
Touras Ghanbar-zadeh said one of the key issues for him is the overcrowding of schools in Surrey.
“Fifty per cent of schools in Surrey are overcrowded,” the 46-year-old Ghanbar-zadeh said. “There’s no immediate plans to deal with this. Everyone is blaming the province.”
He said there is no more land to build schools on because the city has allowed it all to be developed.
“We should have thought about it a long time ago before issuing permits,” he said. “Now we don’t have land.”
He also said it’s getting more and more expensive to live in this city. With bridge tolls, gas taxes and higher property taxes on the way, it’s becoming harder for residents to pay the bills.
“This is one thing I don’t think (Mayor) Dianne Watts has negotiated hard enough,” he said. “I always think the mayor has to be a champion for all people, and I don’t think she has been.”
Town hall meetings
Clifford Inimgba said immigration is a huge issue. The process, he said, takes too long for people who want to come to this country.
He will “make sure the processes for those people is shorter.”
He also wants to engage the public better by holding town hall meetings.
Better transportation is also needed, he said.
More bus stops are required, Inimgba said, noting some people have to “walk miles” to get to catch a bus.
“Apart from more bus stops, I want to maintain the SkyTrain and use the buses that are there right now,” he said.
He also wants to freeze all taxes, and encourage banks to lend money to small businesses and builders.