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Surrey Voters May Shift Entire Region

Toppled right-wing council would alter GVRD decision making

Jared Ferrie 11 Oct 2005TheTyee.ca

Jared Ferrie is a writer based in Vancouver.

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In a move that could reshape the futures of communities throughout the Lower Mainland, a new left-of-centre political party says it is poised to take control of Surrey's city council in the upcoming municipal election.

The Surrey Civic Coalition (SCC) expects to cash in on what it says is widespread public dissatisfaction with the governing right wing Surrey Electors Team (SET).

If so, the victory would have far-reaching effects by reversing the balance of power on the Greater Vancouver Regional District board that makes decisions about transportation and land use for the region.

Bill Picket, an SCC political organizer, said the coalition has support from NDP and Green party members as well as communities including South Asians, Muslims, trade unions and environmentalists.

"There's a good possibility that SCC takes the majority on council," said Kennedy Stewart, who teaches public policy at Simon Fraser University.

GVRD at stake

Stewart added that support for SET appears to have been dwindling over the past few years, pointing out that the three councilors who received the most votes in the last election were not SET members.

He said an SCC victory would change the makeup of the GVRD board and shift its emphasis to more environmentally inclined development throughout the Lower Mainland.

The current chair of the GVRD board is SET councilor Marvin Hunt, who also sits on the board of directors for TransLink. Surrey mayor, SET member Doug McCallum, chairs the TransLink board. Both have been accused of putting developers' interests ahead of those of their constituents.

"I think people are fed up with McCallum and a lack of respect for community concerns," said independent councilor and former mayor Bob Bose, who is running on the SCC slate this time around.

Bose said residents are feeling the effects of urban sprawl and bad planning. Traffic jams are now common in Surrey, the fastest-growing municipality in the Lower Mainland, and the city suffers from poor public transit and the loss of green space.

"There's been a whole decade lost to sprawl," Bose said.

Former SET member splits

Independent mayoral candidate Dianne Watts, a former SET member who says she split from the party partly because of Mayor McCallum's "confrontational" management style, is also critical of SET's approach to urban growth.

"The focus has been development, development, development at any cost," said Watts.

Mayor McCallum denied the accusations.

"That couldn't be farther from the truth," he said. "We've always balanced our growth."

But Stewart noted that urban sprawl was the biggest topic of debate at public meetings he had attended in Surrey. He said that Surrey has failed to implement a balanced approach to growth as laid out in the GVRD's Livable Region Strategy.

"Under McCallum these guidelines have been ignored," he said.

"It could make a significant difference to the region if Surrey swings to the left," added Stewart.

For example, the controversial Richmond-Airport-Vancouver (RAV) rapid transit project would likely have been defeated had SCC members been on the GVRD board instead of McCallum's people, he said.

Opponents of the RAV line argued that cheaper and more effective options, such as better bus lanes and increased service, were available. They also objected to the use of a private contractor to build the line, which will almost certainly go over budget.

Developers and politicians

Mayor McCallum said he agrees with the GVRD's Livable Region Strategy in general, but no city fully complies with it.

Many BC communities fail to take a balanced approach to growth, according to Stewart - a situation he sees as the result of the close relationship between big developers and politicians.

"Developers make a lot of money," he said, "and they fund the election campaigns of pro-development mayors."

Vancouver city councilor David Cadman has called SET's control of the GVRD "revenge of the 'burbs" and says he welcomes a change of leadership in Surrey.

"I would hope to see a progressive majority for Surrey city council that understands the Livable Region Strategy and really fosters the use of public transit," said Cadman.

Cadman added that the city's lack of adherence to the strategy contributes to air pollution and heavy traffic in Vancouver, as Surrey residents use cars rather than public transit to commute.

'Obviously something wrong'

The SCC's Picket thinks this is an opportune time for his party to reach out to groups that have been alienated by the SET's policies and style of government.

"The entire South Asian community has been shut out of the process entirely," he said.

Diversity on city council is an important issue, agrees SCC candidate Barinder Rasode.

"Surrey has never had a visible minority candidate elected to council," said Rasode. "Obviously there's something wrong."

Mayor McCallum denied that SCC is truly a diverse organization.

"It's all NDP," he said.

Jared Ferrie is on staff of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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