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EXCLUSIVE: Why we left Surrey First

Trio of councillors tell their side of the story about Surrey First’s fracture – and what they say has Mayor Linda Hepner ‘angry’ and ‘insulted’
Former Surrey First Councillors Bruce Hayne (mayoral candidate), Dave Woods and Barbara Steele in their Intregity Now campaign office in the old Stardusk Roller Rink building.

Three Surrey politicians sit in their campaign headquarters in the old Stardust Roller Rink building, a fitting locale for a group of candidates who are looking for a fresh start.

Just like the historic building in North Surrey that is soon to become an education centre, Bruce Hayne, Barbara Steele and Dave Woods say they are wanting change.

During their years on council together as part of Surrey First, the three may have differing feelings about splitting from the reigning slate.

But there is one thing they all agree on – what Surrey First became is not what they signed up for. But that’s a claim Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner takes serious issue with.

While the three councillors are running in the Oct. 20 election together under the Integrity Now banner, their lingering feelings about jumping the Surrey First ship vary wildly.

“It was a decision that tormented me,” said Dave Woods, a former police officer. “Still does, quite frankly.”

Twenty-year Councillor Barbara Steele said the day she made the decision was “a very happy” day.

“It was a lot of weight off my mind.”

And as for councillor turned mayoral candidate Bruce Hayne?

“I think people deserve better,” he said. “In the last four years there’s been big shift in how not only we communicate internally, but how we were front facing and communicating externally.”

Hayne was the first to step off after what he described as a “real shift, operationally and philosophically from when Dianne (Watts) was mayor.”

“It wasn’t the same,” he said of after Watts’ departure. “There wasn’t the same kind of collaboration within council… It’s a much bigger thing and a feeling that this isn’t the direction that I want to go. This isn’t how I feel that we should be working together and the governance model is just one that is not collaborative, it’s not open and transparent.”

He gave one internal example.

“Every year the mayor has the State of the City Address and the mayor describes some of the big-picture, bold ideas that are coming forward for the coming year… I can assure you that each one of us heard it for the very first time when you heard it.

“That’s the kind of thing that didn’t make me feel included or valued as a councillor,” Hayne said, adding, “Surrey First had every seat on school board in the last term and every seat on council. And we had one joint meeting.”

See also: Councillor Dave Woods resigns from Surrey First

See also: Longtime councillor Steele quits Surrey First to run alongside Hayne

Steele echoed that sentiment, saying she had “some grave concerns.”

“There was no real feeling of all of us together, even though we were on the same team,” said Steele.

“Over the last few years, there were several committees of council that we would have a report from and I didn’t even know that that committee existed. Things that would come before us that were worked out by people, that we had never even seen, and had to be prepared to vote on it.”

That never happened under Watts’ watch, she added.

“Dianne was always, ‘My team and I, the team did this.’ She was incredibly inclusive, really.

“I wouldn’t blame one person,” Steele elaborated, “but certainly when Linda was mayor it was night and day from when Dianne was there. So take it from there. And Tom had a different idea altogether and I couldn’t go along with any of it. Just in platform, in inclusivity, in who dealt with things, who was going to make decisions, was far from what we had done before.”

Steele said as the election neared, she “couldn’t believe the things I was hearing, the things that were coming, the changes. And no input. No input from us at all. And I walked. It was so far removed from the Surrey First of Dianne that it was not recognizable.”

There’s an obvious, lingering question: Why didn’t the three politicians split earlier, if they didn’t agree with the way things were being run?

As a first-term councillor in 2014, Woods says it took him a while to “get into the groove.”

“As soon as I got the picture, what I could see, I thought, ‘Whoa. Hold the phone here.’ That’s when I started voting against over 100 developments.”

Woods said he “spoke up.”

For his part, Hayne said you take time to let a new mayor “find their sea legs.”

“I think you spend the first couple years trying to make adjustments internally, and wait for the new mayor to find their sea legs and get going,” he said. “Then you come to the realization in year three that this isn’t going anywhere. Then you spend the last year figuring out, fish or cut bait, how do I exit and when do I exit?

“I had no intention and I still have no intention of hurting Surrey First. I wanted to step off and I didn’t want to cause a row or make any wild accusations of what I saw as being shortcomings, that wasn’t at all where I was going to go, and I’m still not going to do that. I just feel very strongly that there is a better way of governance in civic politics than the way we are right now. And a stronger vision.”

For Steele, there was “discontent.”

“I was kind of hoping things would get better… I did have some grave concerns. I took the opportunity of an election,” she said. “In my discussions with Tom it became very clear that there was no more discussion. We didn’t stand up and have fisticuffs or anything like that, and I’m assuming I can still talk to him when I’m in a room. I do, I sit next to him, my office is next to him and he sits next to me on council. But the role of mayor and councillor was not going to be a comfortable one for four more years.”

Woods – who split after Surrey First mayoral candidate Tom Gill spoke publicly about supporting a handgun ban – said leaving was a tough decision for him.

“I got elected to city council, I feel, because I ran with Surrey First, so to leave Surrey First was incredibly hard for me,” he said.

Asked if they thought Hepner was a good mayor, the three paused.

“Everyone has their own style,” said Hayne. “I think the people of Surrey will judge that over time and over the years to come. I’m not going to sit here and judge Linda as a mayor. Linda gave 30-plus years of service to the city as an employee and as an elected official, and she’s capped a very long, distinguished career off with being mayor for four years.”

Steele said Hepner “did her very best, I think. She really did.”

“We were used to Dianne. Dianne is outstanding in many, many ways. Very hard. I don’t know many that could actually follow Dianne. That might have been very difficult,” she added.

“But I think she worked hard, she knew her stuff, she knew the city, certainly she knew the parts of the city the staff needed to know, she had a very responsible job with the staff and on staff, I just think there was a lot of comparison between the two, but I think she managed in her way. The city hasn’t fallen apart, there’s nothing terrible she’s done.”

The Now-Leader asked the three candidates if they would have stayed with Surrey First if Hepner remained at the helm.

“No,” Hayne replied first. “I left before Tom was chosen as the mayoral candidate. My decision was already made.”

Steele wasn’t so sure.

“I might have,” she said.

“I wasn’t as quick to make the decision. I even went so far as to vote for Tom for the nomination because I felt that he probably was the right one to vote for at the time. He and I talked about it a lot. I told him I was going to vote for him before hand, he thought it was wonderful, we were doing great, things were going great, he said we’re going to work, and within two days, three days, things weren’t the same. My decision was made when Tom came on board.”

Woods said he probably would have stayed.

“I would have liked to see more consultation from Linda, but I consider myself a pretty loyal individual. Who knows. Hard to say. But I think I probably would have stayed.”

All three said their goal in the election, and for governance, if elected, is to operate with “integrity.”

“It’s not which side of an issue you fall down on, LRT versus SkyTrain, is it RCMP or municipal, it’s that the community deserves more,” said Hayne.

“The community deserves a better answer than, ‘I’m going to get rid of the RCMP the day I take office,’ or ‘I’m going to ban all hand guns.’ Those tiny sound bites they can work well on radio, perhaps, but the community deserves much more consultation and much more input into what are very complex issues.”

Mayor Linda Hepner responds

When Hepner heard what they had to say, she told the Now-Leader she was furious and “insulted.”

“Everyone has their own style,” she said of her leadership. “I’m not a clone… My door was always open.”

She said the suggestion she didn’t consult with her team enough “is not the reality.”

When asked about Hayne’s comment that she never revealed to him her State of the City announcements, she said she was merely following suit of previous mayors, such as Doug McCallum.

“When McCallum was mayor and he did his State of the City, we always had councillors saying what are we going to come up with now? When Watts was mayor, no one saw that before. It was no more, no less, than what had always happened.”

Hepner said things were different under former mayors Bob Bose and Doug McCallum, “and things will be quite different under the next mayor. I don’t see that as being a surprise.”

As far as Hepner is concerned, the actions of Hayne and his team are purely “political positioning.”

“They have every opportunity to be running with Surrey First, and I’m not part of it anymore, I’m gone,” she said.

“What else could I chalk it up to other than opportunism. When you see someone up until the day before the Surrey First mayoral vote, then finds out he’s not getting the support, then leaves. You can’t put any other word to it than political opportunism.

“I have no reason to make it up. It’s not my election.”

Hepner said Hayne has been “undermining me from the day I became mayor… I’m offended he’s trying to make this about me.”

According to Hepner, Hayne didn’t once come to her suggesting things be done differently.

“He’s been a rogue councillor all along… I had to have one discussion with him about his mayoral interests early in my mandate,” she said, estimating it was two years ago.

“I did go down and say, ‘Stop it, you’re undermining my mandate, and I can’t have that happen.’ He assured me it would not. I said if it continues to happen you should leave Surrey First. He’s been winding up his agenda for the past year.”

Hepner said Hayne lost the mayoral candidacy vote within Surrey First to her last time around.

“The man is passionate about being mayor, I’ll give him that. But when he throws the word integrity in there? I’m offended, because what he did had no integrity.

“After 33 years, to hear that, it’s bull—-t.”

If the three councillors felt this way, Surrey First’s mayoral candidate Tom Gill questioned why they wouldn’t speak up earlier.

Asked to respond to the concerns the former slate members raised and if there were tensions before the three split, Gill said he’s “aiming to take the high road” in this campaign and suggested some had “amnesia.”

“To be frank, up until that point, (Hayne) was still looking to colleagues of mine, lobbying them to support him as the leadership candidate. I’m confused, given he left before the leadership race, why he would’ve felt and given those comments,” Gill added.

As for Steele’s departure from Surrey First, he said “her recollection of her story is very different than mine,” insisting she left because the party didn’t endorse her after learning her loyalties were elsewhere, and had been speaking to the Rich Coleman camp.

For her part, Steele said she doesn’t recall “the word endorse or not being endorsed coming up at all” but that she and Gill “sometimes clash.”

“We felt we needed someone who was committed to the team,” said Gill, insisting he has consulted with others all the way along.

“If you look at my track record, it’s such that I’m always consulting with everyone. One needs to be able to differentiate personal opinion versus that of a group. Not always will you have census. In developing our platform, there’s a position we need to have from a team. There are people who have different perspectives, but finding that sweet spot is always important. It’s something I’m not having a problem in achieving (with the new team).”

See also: VIDEO: Surrey First announces full slate of candidates

Is the Surrey First of today wildly different than that of Watts’? Gill acknowledged Surrey First’s vision has been “tweaked.” Gill said during Watts’ tenure, the emphasis was on developing the City Centre core, and “playing catch up” in terms of civic amenities.

Now, building on that, Gill said his focus will be on youth and families, if elected on Oct. 20.

The road through Hawthorne Park

The Integrity Now team also pulled back the curtain on what was arguably the most controversial issue in Surrey’s civic landscape since the 2014 election when Surrey First swept all nine council seats — the road through Hawthorne Park.

The road was hotly contested by residents who say they felt ignored and dismissed through the process.

The project proceeded despite more than 11,000 Surrey citizens formally voicing their disapproval, an attempt in court to halt it, and a protester blocking machinery from tree-clearing and delaying work by a day.

The city’s justification for the connector road is to move utilities off 104 Avenue in preparation for light rail, that it’s been in the city’s Official Community Plan since 1986, and to create an east-west connector to Whalley Boulevard to 150th Street to ease traffic and reduce congestion.

See also: Surrey residents mourn tree loss in Hawthorne Park

See also: VIDEO: Surrey trying to ‘engage’ protesters blocking excavators in Hawthorne Park

See also: Emotions high after Surrey approves controversial road through Hawthorne Park

While Hayne, Woods and Steele all defend the decision itself, and say the road was needed, they all agreed it wasn’t done in the process in which it should have been.

“I think on that one we went against protocol,” said Steele. “It’s always been that you don’t have any kind of heated discussion or controversial item that comes during, especially, the month of August. Everyone is away, we’re not in session. it was wrong to do.

“We were pushed and pushed and pushed,” Steele continued. “Then we made the decision. I don’t have a problem with the decision but I do, like Bruce, have a problem with how it was done, and lack of discussion. There was just no time to do that.

“It was the funding,” she said of the project’s urgency. “There was no nice way of saying it.”

Hayne chimed in, adding that if you look at a map of Surrey, there is no straight line along any road north of 88th Avenue that doesn’t bump into a park.

“It’s a nice problem to have, but you can’t go east-west across Surrey without hitting a park. I believe that that was necessary to do. How we did it, on the other hand, I thought was very unfortunate. And very unconsultative, if that’s even a word. We did it in the middle of summer,” he said.

“I did not like the way in which we went about doing it,” he added. “Part way through staff found out all the sudden, through some research, that oh my goodness there’s a restrictive covenant on this and we have to do a reverse petition. They didn’t know that at the beginning. It was a series of really unfortunate events and there seemed to be a real rush because of wanting to get early works done and funding from the federal government and so on, for the works to be done, that put a very tight timeline on it. The public just did not feel like they were consulted.”

But, Hayne said no matter what the project, you can’t please everyone all the time.

Woods said the timing was too tight.

“There needed to be more consultation, there needed to be more input from the community,” he said. “I think the city did the very best to try to make the best of the situation. They added, I mean the park is actually bigger than it was before. They put a lot of money into it, but the east-west connector on the road and of course if you wanted to put SkyTrain or LRT on 104, you had to move the water main. Either that or you don’t put rapid transit there,” said Woods.

While the city has a long-term transit vision that includes 150 kilometres of light rail, Woods said the road through Hawthorne park was a “tough, tough decision.”

“Horrible feedback from the community,” he added.

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