FOCUS: A new mayor is coming, but don’t forget about councillors

SURREY — With incumbent Mayor Dianne Watts bowing out of the mayoral race in surrey after nearly a decade in the top spot, the city is getting a new mayor. Naturally, all eyes are on the mayoral candidates in the race for the city’s top job.

But Gordon Price, a six-term Vancouver councillor and director of SFU’s city Program, said it’s easy to forget how important those sitting in the other seats are. A mayor on his or her own doesn’t have as much power as some might assume, he explained. "Really, a significant amount of the power of a mayor is dependent upon their personality and ability to create a sufficient power block or consensus. otherwise they don’t really have much power. Power of the pulpit, power of setting the agenda – but you’ve got to get those votes."

Price noted, generally, people tend to look to the mayor for their symbolic function as the leader, in addition to setting the agenda. "And those are two pretty significant things but in either case, there’s no guarantee you’re going to be able to get what you want done unless you’ve got that majority vote either on the issue that you’ve brought forward or because it’s your party or slate or coalition."

So while electing a mayor one deems suitable is important, electing those to sit as councillors is equally important, he said. "My advice would be to choose a party, a platform, a mayor – and all of the above – that is consistent with the direction you want to see your municipality go," Price urged.

"In Surrey’s case, of course, the issue above all seems to be crime, crime, crime. A little bit of discussion on transportation, no doubt, and probably the speed of growth. so I think you will see a pretty clear message from the electorate in surrey’s case."


Surrey’s current council has an overwhelming majority. In the 2011 election, surrey First swept all nine seats at the council table, ousting incumbent Bob Bose, member of the Surrey Civic Coalition party at the time. He was the last remaining SCC member at the table.

Even with Coun. Barinder Rasode splitting from Surrey First earlier this year to sit as an independent, and former councillor Marvin Hunt leaving after he won his bid to become MLA for Surrey-Panorama, the party still holds seven of the nine seats.

After their sweep in 2011, we asked Price what it means when a sole party is around the council table.

One concern is the bubble effect, he said, where you "don’t get the forcefulness of counter points of view.

"It’s not that you won’t be aware of other points of view but when you’re sitting around a council table and you have an advocate for a different perspective, who doesn’t have to take into account that that they’re a member of a caucus, there’s a different dynamic."

Price speaks from experience, as he has been a member of a council where his party was nearly unanimous.

"I sat on six Vancouver councils. We always had a majority…. I like the combination of the ability to govern and I like the continuity and I like the consistency. But then, of course, I would," he said with a chuckle. "Politicians sure like to have the power on their side."

In an Insights West poll released in April, 68 per cent of residents surveyed said they were ready for either a significant or small change in their legislators. Only 20 per cent said they would like to see no change at all.

While Price noted there’s an argument to be made for more voices at a council table, as opposed to a majority on council that’s able to "plow their way through," he also warned of the dangers of too many opposing opinions.

He said the two contrasts can be the difference between politics and governing.

"You do tend to focus on the politics, the consensusmaking," he said of working in a minority government. "You’re so distracted, or by force of necessity, just working on whatever the personalities and the politics are. And I think that’s the key point – is that the personalities emerge much more forcefully than they do when you’ve got a majority."

A stroll down Surrey’s political memory lane paints a clear picture of what can come out of that kind of environment.

Bose, who served as a Surrey alderman from 1979 to 1985 and then as the city’s mayor for nine years, presided in a minority government.

Those were rock’em-sock’em times on council, with Bose leading a slate of four left-wing Surrey Civic Electors council members against five right-wing Surrey Electors Team councillors.

Bose has said it was tough working as mayor in a minority government.

"The council of the day was referred to as being dysfunctional, which I dispute because it was anything but dysfunctional. It was, in fact, I think alive and democracy was alive and well, despite all the controversy," Bose said. "We did an awful lot of good things."

His proudest accomplishments include acquiring a lot of open space for the city.

"They were everything from big projects to little ones," Bose told the Now.

Acquisitions under his watch included properties that now make up the Stewart Farm and the Surrey Bend Regional Park, which is nearly as large as Stanley Park.

But from legal battles to name calling, those were undoubtedly feistier times than now.

Plans to build a seniors housing development in Safe Surrey Coalition Newton in the early 1990s resulted in an entanglement of legal battles.

News reports at the time said the proposal generated "a snarl of legal actions so tangled council had sought legal advice on its legal advice."

Then-alderman Hunt was a member of the group behind the development, Harwood Industries and the Bible Fellowship Housing Society. The fight was spurred by Surrey Civic Electors council members’ denial of the project at fourth reading.

In 1991, council denied approval of the 90 seniors’ homes, in which Hunt abstained from voting.

The developers then appealed the decision, and the decision was overturned. Then that decision was appealed, and on and on it went.

In 1992, then-alderman Bonnie Schrenk wanted the city to reject Surrey’s review of the Official Community Plan, amid rumours it had been leaked. Bose accused her of attempted sabotage.

Also in 1992, Bose came out swinging against what he called a one-sided news report that said council decided to remove details from a public report on a 1988 planning retreat aboard an old minesweeper, the Edgewater Fortune, on general travel and other expenses. He called it "inaccurate journalism and leaky council members." He believed Schrenk leaked the report, who was quoted in the story as saying, "If you try to hide it looks bad for you."

She denied being the leak, accusing Bose of being on a "vicious personal vendetta."

And in 1992, the Surrey Leader lost a legal dispute with then-alderman Bruce Ralston. The court found that a comment attributed to fellow councillor Bill Fomich in an issue of the paper had defamed Ralston’s character. The Leader was ordered to pay for Ralston’s legal fees, and surrender an undisclosed amount of cash.

The controversial comment had been made to a reporter outside council chambers, following a heated debate concerning the Northview golf course.

In October of 1993, then-mayor Bose was served with court documents charging the Surrey Civic Electors was not an actual organization, but a front for the NDP. At the time he called it a "frivolous action that is purely politically motivated."

Later that year, Bose and SET council member Gary Watkins crossed swords over whether or not council was set to buy new mayoral chains, which could have cost as much as $20,000. Watkins handed reporters a letter at the start of a council meeting, indicating the city was looking to do so. Bose denied ever seeing the letter, reportedly saying to Watkins, "You’re the creepiest guy I’ve ever known in my life."

Then, in December of 1993, Bose called for increased respect and tolerance among councillors and citizens in his inaugural address, going into his third term.

"While people say… they want to make sure one party doesn’t get too arrogant, they become increasingly unhappy with a fractured council that can’t seem to get its act together and is always squabbling," Price said. "That pendulum will swing real fast."

The Now will be running biographies of all candidates in Surrey, White Rock and Delta in our Nov. 11 print edition and online.

Twitter: @amyreid87

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