SURREY – Public safety, homelessness and city finances dominated the conversation during the first all-candidates meeting at SFU Surrey Monday (Oct. 27), where council hopefuls shared their thoughts on issues facing the fastest-growing city in the region. Of the 36 declared candidates, 29 made an appearance, including all members of Safe Surrey Coalition (SSC), Surrey First, TeamSurrey and One Surrey, as well as independents Cliff Blair, Rick Scorsese, Touraj Ghanbar-Zadeh, Martin Rooney, Shawn Francis, Saira Aujla, Nav Dhanoya and James Duncan.
Missing were seven independents: Tanvir Bhupal, Obi Canuel (Surrey’s "Pastafarian"), Jas Dhillon, Fiona Dionne, Rita Elvins, Gary Hoffman and Jim McMurtry. Crime was top of mind for most candidates. A recent poll conducted by Angus Reid Global showed only 13 per cent of residents feel safe in their city. That is much lower than other cities in the region, such as Vancouver, in which 54 per cent of residents surveyed reported feeling safe.
One Surrey’s Maz Artang came out swinging, saying "I’m here to cut the BS," and "Surrey First sat on their hands" while people were killed. "Let’s not fool the public," said One Surrey teammate Merv Bayda of how quickly new officers could be hired and on the streets, noting his slate’s crime plan includes 200 community safety officers that could be hired immediately.
SSC’s Justin Thind believes crime has "exploded all over the city," saying needles have been found at his child’s school. He said current leaders have already had a chance to make a change. Teammate Beau Simpson noted recovery homes and illegal suites were top of mind in terms of dealing with crime. SSC’s plan includes hiring 95 new officers by 2015 and doubling the number of bylaw officers in the city.
Independent Francis said to deal with crime, in addition to more officers, he would look to other cities – such as Vancouver and how it’s dealing with the Downtown Eastside – as well as engage community partners.
TeamSurrey’s Stephen Gammer said he would introduce a "public safety commissioner" that would work with all departments in the city with a focus on crime reduction. They also promise 100 community officers and 25 new bylaw officers.
Surrey First’s Dave Woods said he plans to build on the city’s Crime Reduction Strategy, and said foot patrols are key in terms of making residents feel safe. He added he only believes in professional police services. His team is committing to 147 officers over two years.
Teammate Mike Starchuk said as a firefighter, he has been in all of the city’s recovery homes and wants the bylaws department, fire services and the ministry to work together to "cohesively" shut down illegal operations. A question put to several candidates was whether the city has done enough to rejuvenate Whalley and Newton.
Many, including Thind, Ghanbar-Zadeh and Bayda, argued neighbourhoods have been neglected, particularly Newton. "Newton is getting the short end of the stick," said Bayda, adding people are being displaced as Whalley is developed. TeamSurrey’s Gammer said Surrey is behind in terms of social planners, stating Surrey has two and Vancouver has 20.
Surrey First’s Tom Gill said the current council has made significant investments in Whalley but added, "Newton needs more TLC" and said initiatives are underway. Judy Villeneuve said the city took the "bull by the horn" in Whalley, investing $4 million, and plans to do the same in Newton.
Independent Dhanoya said as a bylaw officer, he’s seen all of the city’s back alleys, spots where people illegally dump garbage, and more. He wants to see bylaw and police officers responding to low priority calls within 20 minutes.
Many candidates were asked how they’d ensure a location is found for Surrey’s purpose-built homeless shelter, after the community voiced its opposition to a proposed location during a public hearing. Provincial funding could be lost if a location is not selected soon. Surrey First candidates agreed the shelter should go in the hospital precinct and said two locations are currently under review, while SSC’s Simpson was against the facility at that location, saying "residents in that area have spoken." TeamSurrey’s Brenda Locke urged the audience to remember there are more than 400 people sleeping on city streets.
Fiscally responsible government was brought up several times. Independent Scorsese said it’s the reason he’s running and identified it as the top issue in the city for him, saying the money for the new civic site should have gone to first responders. Simpson believes council overspent on the "glamorous" city hall. Meanwhile, Surrey First’s Gill said it’s easy to throw around phrases like "freezing taxes," but referred to a recent Fraser Institute report that showed Surrey has the lowest taxes and municipal spending of 17 Metro Vancouver municipalities.
But Gammer argued having the lowest taxes is not necessarily the best way to go. "Citizens are losing in the end," he said, noting infrastructure has not kept up with growth in Surrey. Teammate Locke wants to see "stringent reporting" out from city hall. SSC’s Rina Gill said she, too, wants to create a "fiscal government." Transportation was also high on the list for most candidates, stressing a lack of transit connectivity in the municipality.
Most candidates supported Light Rail, but One Surrey’s Brian Young said a ground-level LRT system would make road congestion even worse.
There was also talk surrounding the environment and sustainable development.
Some candidates were asked how the city can claim it’s sustainable when thousands of trees are cut down every year.
Surrey First’s Bruce Hayne said the city has worked hard creating policies to save trees, and pointed to the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy that he says will save the equivalent of "two Stanley Parks" in Surrey. SSC’s Laurie Guerra said the city needs a system to mitigate damage to the environment, while encouraging job creation and a growing economy.
Another question put to some candidates was what they would do with the North Surrey rec centre. Most believed it was time to relocate the facility somewhere nearby. Dhanoya, an independent, didn’t know where the rec centre was and said he would talk to users of the facility before making a decision. Candidates were also asked how to ensure Surrey becomes an economic hub. Many said public safety would ensure businesses are attracted to the city, and stay. Hayne mentioned Innovation Boulevard and the international investment it’s attracting, and that new companies are coming to Surrey as a result. When it comes to growth, several candidates referred to the lack of infrastructure. Independent Blair said the growth has left the city with inadequate facilities and park, as well as broken roads.
"Surrey has growing pains," he said. Surrey First’s Gill said the party is "creating world class facilities." Ghanbar-Zadeh expressed his desire for a Surrey airport and a Surrey NBA team, saying current council has "done nothing to put Surrey on the map," and now the city needs "visionary leadership." Aujla believes residential and truck parking in Surrey is a big issue and Dhanoya wants to see a convention centre in Surrey to attract business and create jobs. Follow @TheNowNewspaper for live tweets from upcoming all-candidates meetings. For a list of the scheduled meetings and for the latest election news, visit TheNowNewspaper. com/Civic-Election-2014. firstname.lastname@example.org