An election, then a trial, poses unusual test for Surrey’s Mayor McCallum

An election, then a trial, poses unusual test for Surrey's Mayor McCallum
Ben Nelms/CBC

SURREY, B.C. — Incumbent Mayor Doug McCallum of Surrey, B.C., is facing consecutive challenges — one at the ballot box and the other in a courtroom.

It’s an unusual turn of events for McCallum, who was elected on a law-and-order platform in 2018 that included a flagship promise to scrap Canada’s largest RCMP detachment and create a Surrey police force. He now awaits trial on a public mischief charge.

McCallum is being challenged for the top job by seven contenders, including three former members of Parliament and a once-loyal councillor who defected from McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition to challenge the policies she’d initially supported.

Voters will cast their ballots on Saturday to elect a mayor, eight councillors and six school trustees.

McCallum is running as mayor for the fifth time since 1996, now with the slogan “Doug Gets it Done,” to highlight his delivery of some big-ticket 2018 promises.

They include ditching the RCMP in favour of a municipal police force, something he believes is necessary for B.C.’s second-largest city, which has experienced a wave of gang-related shootings.

The transition to the Surrey Police Service has been controversial. A group called “Keep the RCMP in Surrey” has been vehemently opposed to McCallum’s plan while his former colleague and now rival, Brenda Locke, is running to replace him under the Surrey Connect banner with a vow to reverse the shift in policing.

Elections BC spokesman Andrew Watson said a complaint has been filed against Surrey Connect alleging its candidates are working with “Keep the RCMP in Surrey,” considered a third-party advertising sponsor, in violation of a law governing local election campaigns.

Every complaint is reviewed but not all lead to an investigation, Watson said, adding it’s not yet known if that would happen in this case.

The wrangling over policing took a turn last September when McCallum complained to the RCMP that a member of the pro-RCMP group petitioning outside a grocery store ran over his foot.

But three months later, McCallum was charged with public mischief related to his complaint, with a trial scheduled to start on Oct. 31. The BC Prosecution Service has said the investigation was handled by the B.C. RCMP major crime section, which is not based in Surrey.

McCallum, who also promised to fast-track the yet-to-be-completed SkyTrain to Langley, now wants to build a 60,000 seat stadium and also extend transit to the Newton neighbourhood in his city.

McCallum was not available for an interview despite repeated requests.

Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, said voters who support the incumbent mayor because he backed up some seemingly lofty promises could face a difficult decision at the polls before his looming trial.

“If he is found guilty later and is given some kind of suspended sentence or community service, or both, he could still go to his office and do his job. Morally, maybe he shouldn’t,” Telford said.

Locke said the city should not be paying McCallum’s legal bills because the alleged hit and run happened on his own time when he was grocery shopping.

While she supported McCallum’s replacement of the RCMP when she was on council with him at the helm, Locke said decisions around the transition, which required provincial approval, were made “behind closed doors,” without input from councillors or the public, and will end up costing millions of dollars.

“I would never have dreamt that he would have said we’re going to do this and not do a feasibility study, a cost-benefit analysis and an impact study. None of that was done.”

Surrey Police Service officers earn the highest pay among their counterparts in Canada, Locke said, adding about 150 of them are currently working in the city, which has 643 Mounties.

“We will be able to transition those officers either into the RCMP, and I’ve already had that conversation with the RCMP, that they will do a bridging program for them, or they can go back to their original agencies,” Locke said.

“The priority for me is to bring back ethical government,” she said, adding public safety is a major issue in a rapidly growing city rocked by gang-related shootings.

Locke, along with two other councillors, abandoned the Safe Surrey Coalition in 2019 over multiple issues related to McCallum’s “my way or the highway” leadership approach, she said.

Sukh Dhaliwal, a former Liberal member of Parliament for Surrey-Newton, said he decided to jump into the mayoral race so he could tackle issues like transparency, public safety and a speedier permitting system for renovations and development.

“No. 1, we will make sure that we complete the police transition smoothly,” he said. “And we will be open. We’ll tell the public how much it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to (take).”

Policing would also be transformed to allow bylaw officers to handle noise complaints, for example, while mental health professionals would respond to calls related to people in distress, Dhaliwal said.

Other slates have “stolen” his ideas to hire more firefighters, freeze taxes for the first year and create more parks and recreation facilities, he said.

“All these ideas I’m talking about, United Surrey brought forward,” he said of his slate.

Jinny Sims defeated Dhaliwal to become a New Democrat MP in 2011 before he triumphed against her in the 2015 federal election. She is now heading the Surrey Forward slate as she aims to bypass him to the mayor’s chair.

Sims wants to “restore integrity” in the office. At least two recent “special meetings” had councillors rushing through dozens of projects, following a vote last April to block the city’s ethics commissioner from hearing new complaints until after the election.

Sims, a former member of the legislature who once headed the BC Teachers’ Federation, said she was encouraged to run by a diverse range of young people concerned about inclusivity, safety and services in the city.

“Diversity is our strength. We have a huge talent pool. We have the best supply of industrial land,” said Sims, who has promised to build an entertainment district in Surrey.

Sims has not taken a position on whether Surrey should have its own police service.

However, she said she would freeze the transition for 90 days while an audit is completed on costs incurred so far and how much money would be needed to meet contractual obligations if the new force is dropped.

“Right now, what we have is a mess because Doug McCallum and Brenda Locke did not have a business plan when they started the transition, which I believe has been mishandled.”

Surrey First’s Gordie Hogg, another former Liberal MP and member of the legislature, said misinformation had made it impossible to make a decision on the policing issue and that he too would do an audit to determine the best option.

Confusion over the cost of the transition, which by some estimates has topped $500 million, and whether it could even be stopped are causing divisions in the city, said Hogg, an adjunct professor in criminology at Simon Fraser University, where he completed his PhD in public policy.

“I think that the people of Surrey now are much more frustrated with the divisiveness,” he said. “And if you believe most of the comments we’re getting, it looks like almost a 50-50 split between who wants the Surrey Police Service and who wants the RCMP. At this point, I don’t think he’s gained any momentum by saying he was going to do it, because he did it independently,” Hogg said of McCallum’s push to oust the Mounties.

Hogg said Surrey First has started consulting citizens on the policing issue and would formally put the question to them in order to make the best decision.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2022.

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