Surrey city hall. (Photo: Anna Burns)

Surrey city hall. (Photo: Anna Burns)

Controversy continues as Surrey council approves new sign bylaw amendments

Judge ordered City of Surrey to remove ‘ambiguity’ in the bylaw following a constitutional challenge by a group of Surrey residents

The Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council approved new amendments to the city’s sign bylaw 11 days after a judge ordered a re-write to remove “ambiguity” following a constitutional challenge that was launched by a group of Surrey residents.

Third-reading approval was granted by council Monday, with Councillors Jack Hundial, Brenda Locke, Linda Annis and Steven Pettigrew opposed. Mayor Doug McCallum and Councillors Doug Elford, Allison Patton, Mandeep Nagra and Laurie Guerra voted in favour.

Justice Nigel Kent made the order on July 14 in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. The petition was launched by Surrey residents Annie Kaps, Debra (Debi) Johnstone, Colin Pronger, Ivan Scott, Merle Scott and Linda Ypenburg, all members of Keep the RCMP in Surrey.

Lawyer Kevin Smith, representing the residents, argued at trial in Vancouver that the bylaw as amended on Oct. 18, 2021 presented an unconstitutional infringement on their freedom of expression under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Kent concluded that the 2021 amendments gave rise to “an ambiguity in the bylaw that arguably prohibits the posting of political signage on private property except during limited specified periods of time, and that such a restriction would infringe s. 2(b) of the Charter which guarantees the petitioners’ constitutional protection for freedom of, among other things, their political expression.”

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Rob Costanzo, Surrey’s general manager of corporate services, told council in a corporate report that the amendments “will not technically apply to signs for the upcoming municipal election by virtue of Section 56 of the Local Government Act, which effectively provides that any sign bylaw adopted after July 4, 2022, does not apply to the election.”

“Nevertheless,” Costanzo reported, “as the proposed amendments are simply intended to remove the ambiguity in the Sign By-law as identified by the Court, for the purposes of enforcement until the October 2022 municipal election, there is no difference between the current Sign By-law and the proposed amendments.”

Constanzo also stated the amendments before council are “consistent with the Court’s reasons for judgment.”

“In summary, outside of the election periods listed in Section 7.1(4), generally one political sign will be allowed on a single-family residential lot without a permit, subject to some restrictions,” he reported to council. “A person may apply for a permit to erect more than one sign or for a sign that otherwise does not comply with the requirements set out in Section 7(21). During the election periods listed in Section 7.1(4), there will be no limit on the number of political signs, subject to some requirements.”

Ivan Scott, one of the petitioners in the court case, expressed concern with Costanzo’s report.

“This is another ambiguity, is it not? In actual fact whatever comes out now doesn’t apply to our signs. That’s what I see it as, and so therefore nothing changes. If that’s the clarification of the ambiguity, there’s no ambiguity any more as far as I see that we have carte blanche to say we can have as many of those signs on our lawns as possible. I mean, people are not going to put 10 or 15 or 20 signs on their lawn, that would be crazy.”

Smith, the petitioner’s lawyer, echoed Scott’s concern that the bylaw amendments continue to be ambiguous.

“My question would be why are they rushing this through? The issue with the bylaw the first time around was that they didn’t take time to read it through and identify the inconsistencies.”

Smith noted that the city was given three months to fix the bylaw. “The concern would be that in trying to move with haste they are creating new ambiguities when they’re trying to resolve ambiguities.

“Having read that corporate report, my view is that their characterization of the court’s decision is pretty seriously misleading. In particular, the way the background to this reads in the corporate report would make you think that Surrey thinks that it won that case. It did not,” Smith told the Now-Leader. “The court found that the amendments to the bylaw were unconstitutional because otherwise there would be no grounds to grant a remedy. The court doesn’t go around cleaning things up just to be helpful. You only are in a position that the court is remedying something if it finds that there has been a breach and in this case the breach was that it infringed Section 2 of the Charter.”

“We’ll have to consider the amendments that are actually passed,” Smith said. “We’ll see what they say, and see what enforcement steps Surrey intends to take.”

Locke raised similar concerns before the bylaw amendments were voted on. She said the “rush to do the amendments” has resulted in “more ambiguity than there was previously.”

“I’m unclear why the political signs, that language was not removed,” she added. “I think the court was pretty clear about what they wanted to see but I don’t think that the amendments captured the changes the court was looking at and I think in the end the amendments have actually made it more ambiguous than it was even before.”

Costanzo told council Monday the petitioners alleged the sign bylaw was adopted in bad faith and for an improper purpose and the city was attempting to ban political signs “outside of an election event.”

“The city argued against the allegations and stated that the sign bylaw amendments were not intended to be interpreted as banning political signs, so ultimately, and it’s in the reasons for judgment, it’s in black and white, the judge accepted the city’s arguments and concluded in his reasons for judgment that the petition to quash the amendments to the Surrey sign bylaw on grounds of bad faith or improper purpose be dismissed,” Constanzo told council.

Kent noted in his reasons for judgment that “these particular petitioners have been directly targeted by certain members of Surrey city council for special treatment; they were the subject matter of a (quickly and appropriately rescinded) bylaw prohibiting their attendance at council meetings and an injunction lawsuit seeking to enforce that bylaw. Their organization (KTRIS) has even been accused, wrongly it appears, of inflicting physical injury on the mayor.”

The July 25 council meeting was the last before council’s summer break.

Before Monday’s meeting adjourned, Locke presented a notice of motion asking council to formally apologize to Surrey seniors Ivan and Merle Scott, Debra Johnstone, Annie Kaps, Colin Pronger, Linda Ypenburg and Marilyn Smith for “the pain and suffering” arising from council’s Sept. 13, 2021 motion that prohibited them from attending and participating in council meetings.

Council’s next meeting is set for Sept. 19. After that, there will be one more meeting prior to the Oct. 15 civic election, set for Oct. 3.

BC municipal electionBC Supreme CourtCity of Surrey

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