Surrey council has been criticized for doing too much business behind closed doors. But at the last council meeting Monday, that table was turned.
Councillors Brenda Locke and Jack Hundial questioned why business concerning a Surrey-owned gravel pit in the Township of Langley was discussed in an open Investment and Innovation Impact Committee meeting on March 12 rather than in-camera.
Scott Neuman, general manager of engineering, did a power-point presentation on a 14.2 hectare (35 acre) property Surrey owns at 20575-0 Avenue that city bought in 1960 for $30,000 with the intent of extracting gravel. In 2016, he noted, Surrey approached Langley about extracting the gravel and in 2019 the township inquired about buying the heavily forested property from Surrey for a park.
The meeting heard there are three options under consideration: Extracting one million tonnes of gravel for a potential net revenue of $5 million to $12 million, subdividing the land into seven lots – subject to township approval – for a net $10 million to $12 million or up to 14 lots for a net $12 million to $15 million, or do a land exchange or sell it to the township at the current market value of $8.5 million.
The Investment and Innovation Impact Committee is chaired by Mayor Doug McCallum, Councillors Laurie Guerra, Allison Patton and Mandeep Nagra are members.
Hundial asked why a discussion related to selling city-owned land was done in a public session. “To me, I don’t find that’s the right venue for that, that’s something that perhaps should be brought into closed with all of council on that and I’m wondering why staff would bring it just to a committee,” he said.
McCallum replied it came before the committee it did because it looks at “all forms of increased new revenue.
“That the mandate, or one of the mandates of this committee, to look at new revenue sources. That particular property was bought for gravel extraction. It does have a lot of gravel on it, and so we were asking staff the potential of getting revenue from the gravel that was on that site,” the mayor said.
Locke asked staff if discussions involving the sale of any city property is “rightfully to be held in closed council meetings” and added that “disclosing dollar figures in open minutes seems rather extraordinary to me.”
City manager Vincent Lalonde replied that these discussions at this committee were exploratory in nature. “Any kind of decision on selling city assets or developing city assets such as exploiting the gravel pit would come before council either in closed or open, depending on the nature of the report,” he said.
Former Surrey mayor Bob Bose expressed concern.
“What this committee has done, in an open session, is discuss the sale of city property in Langley and this is a property matter,” Bose said. “The problem is the committee doesn’t have the executive authority to direct staff on something like this, and it’s bypassed council and it’s dealt with in public.
“We’re talking about a fair chunk of money,” Bose said. “The principle issue here is that nobody on that committee, including certainly the mayor and the others of course wouldn’t know any better, but what’s shocking is the administration allowed this issue to be done by a committee in an open session that deals with the sale of and disposal of city property and in fact suggests the value of it.
“This is highly prejudicial to the interests of the city,” Bose maintains.