Frank Bucholtz

COLUMN: Policing referendum will be an uphill battle

Surrey voters may yet have the last word

The policing issue in Surrey may yet go to a vote.

It will be an uphill battle, as a referendum is now being pursued through the provincial initiative procedure. This is a last-ditch effort, as previous attempts to have the matter go to referendum have been turned down by Surrey council, by voters in the provincial election (Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, who promised a referendum, lost) and by the provincial government.

However, a successful initiative would be binding. It’s only been used successfully once before – to demand a referendum on the HST. The vote that followed succeeded in getting rid of the despised tax and the campaign led indirectly to the resignation of Premier Gordon Campbell after 10 years in office.

The Surrey policing referendum campaign is headed by Darlene Bennett, a Surrey mother whose husband Paul was shot in his driveway in 2018, apparently by gangsters in a case of mistaken identity. Bennett was a nurse at Peace Arch Hospital and was active in the Cloverdale hockey community.

Bill Tieleman, who played a key role in the HST referendum campaign, is a key player as well. He is also a lobbyist for the National Police Federation, the RCMP union, which has fought the idea of a Surrey Police force.

Tieleman’s involvement and experience ensures that every effort will be made to collect the signatures required to force the issue to referendum. Ten per cent of registered voters in all 87 B.C. ridings must sign an official copy of the petition by Nov. 15 to bring the matter to a vote. While organizers will do their best to crest that very high hurdle, Tieleman is hopeful that the province may allow a referendum if the number of people signing in the nine Surrey ridings is particularly high.

Those who are interested in participating in the initiative can get more information at surreypolicevote.ca

Some historical perspective on referenda in Surrey is worth considering. When the RCMP replaced the original Surrey Police force in 1951, it only proceeded after voters approved the changeover in a referendum. This is the most important precedent for the current campaign.

However, four referenda conducted at the time of the 1956 municipal election are also very relevant. Two were borrowing bylaws – one for a new Surrey Memorial Hospital and another for more than $5 million in borrowing to build new schools and additions. Both were badly needed at the time as Surrey’s rapid growth put pressure on existing infrastructure. Both passed easily.

Another on a natural gas distribution system was defeated, but the fourth one is the most interesting. It was not binding, but it was pivotal. Surrey residents voted in favour of White Rock leaving the larger municipality – a move that took place several months later, in 1957. It was a divisive issue. Support for secession was 3,565 to 3,188, and voters in both White Rock and the other parts of Surrey backed the move.

That referendum came after more than 10 years of activism by a group of White Rock residents who felt Surrey council didn’t pay enough attention to specific issues in the growing, more urban White Rock community. Once the referendum was held, it did not take long for the provincial government to respond. A bill calling for incorporation of White Rock passed at the next session of the legislature.

Mayor Doug McCallum’s contention that the Surrey Police force is so far advanced it cannot be rolled back isn’t accurate, and his comment that “our residents are clearly in support of this transition” is as valid as his claim that taxes only went up 2.9 per cent. The entire police transition has been costly thus far. However, if the initiative is backed in sufficient numbers, the voters of Surrey will have the last word.

Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Peace Arch News and at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca

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