The City of Surrey says it is removing signs that promote light rail transit that had been erected throughout the city.
The move comes at the “direction” of Elections BC.
The city has “removed all the signs for the duration of the election period,” said Deputy City Solicitor Philip Huynh.
Andrew Watson, Elections BC communications manager, said Elections BC requested late Thursday (Sept. 27) that the LRT signs be removed following a complaint regarding election advertising. Watson said under the local elections campaign financing act, election advertising is regulated during the campaign period.
“That legislation defines election advertising broadly. It defines it as the transmission to the public by any means during a campaign period,” Watson said.
“So (if) it promotes or opposes, directly or indirectly, the election of a candidate, including the communications that take positions on issues with which a candidate or party is associated.”
In this case, Watson said, the signs didn’t directly support or oppose a candidate, “but they did directly support LRT in Surrey… which is a campaign issue in that election.”
According to Huynh, the signs were installed following the funding announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan on Sept. 4.
“While the project notification signs were planned months in advance, they were not installed until after the funding for the project was fully announced and secured on Sept. 4,” Huynh added.
A city spokesperson told the Now-Leader that no further comment will be provided.
Last week, mayoral candidate Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition took issue with a city communication plan, saying promoting LRT close to the election is “perceived interference.”
McCallum said at the time he was “gravely concerned” the City of Surrey and TransLink were going to violate election finance rules with an LRT communications plan, but the city said it was standard procedure and the rules would be followed.
An internal Aug. 28 city memo about the 60-day plan, to run in September and October, outlines the proposed strategy. Its goal is to “earn and maintain support for the project with proactive, early, broad, regular and highly-visible communications.”
The memo stated the aim of the strategy is to engage the community, “reassure about key concerns such as safety and congestion,” and to “counter misinformation,” among other things.
McCallum, who leads the Safe Surrey Coalition slate, said he’s worried about the “perceived interference” in the upcoming Oct. 20 election with the SkyTrain versus LRT debate being “at the heart of this election.”
Council candidate Bableen Rana and McCallum said in a release that “there should be a proper and thorough review before any tax dollars are wasted.”
“It is not clear that the author of the communication strategy was even aware of British Columbia’s Local Elections Campaign Financing Act. It is also not clear that the act was even considered. The City of Surrey and/or TransLink will have to register as Third Party Advertisers,” a Safe Surrey Coalition release states. “Imagine this: the City of Surrey as a registered Third Party advertiser to promote the platform of the party currently in power. Their other option is don’t spend a penny – or any staff time.”
The slate says the “preservation of impartiality of staff is in question here and the perceived interference by City and TransLink raises serious concerns regarding bias and interference in the election.”
Jaime Boan, Surrey’s transportation manager, told the Now-Leader last week that the memo was sent in late August “because we were aware the (LRT) commitment and funding announcement would be coming in early September. As well, the RFQ (Request for Qualifications), so it was the ideal time.”
Boan said staff would not delay such a project because of an election.
“We have full intentions of continuing to inform and engage the public on the project going forward,” Boan added. “There are certain rules we have to adhere to, and we will certainly do that.”
Activities on the list for September include “LRT outreach” at KPU and other events, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond speaking at the Surrey Board of Trade earlier this month, and “supportive letters to Now-Leader editor by Project Champions.”
Other initiatives included “project outreach” at the Mayor’s State of the City event earlier this week, and at the upcoming State of Newton, set for Sept. 27.
Planned activities in October include an op-ed, outreach and social media in celebration of Small Business Week with Surrey Board of Trade and the city’s business groups, as well as outreach at a children’s event at Central City Shopping Centre on Halloween, among other events.
Boan said the plan also includes billboards, which have been erected at planned LRT stations, which went up after the business case was approved earlier this month.
In an emailed statement, TransLink said it and the City of Surrey “are preparing to launch a major infrastructure project and as with all projects of this magnitude, planning for clear communication with the public is important. TransLink is following British Columbia’s Local Elections Campaign Financing Act and has no intention of engaging in election advertising during this period.”