SURREY â€” Sparks flew Tuesday night as the "big three" mayoral candidates kicked off what would be their final debate in the lead up to the Nov. 15 civic election.
Held at SFU Surrey and hosted by CBC, the event featured Surrey First’s Linda Hepner, Safe Surrey’s Doug McCallum and One Surrey’s Barinder Rasode in a debate that saw voting records called into question, criticisms of the current direction of the city and even some agreement on certain issues.
Moderater Stephen Quinn prefaced the event by saying only three of the seven candidates had been chosen as it was decided only those who put together political teams and had shown significant presence in public opinion polls were asked to participate.
And to a crowd of more than 200 live and others watching from online things got off to a fiery start as candidates immediately tackled the top issue of the election so far: crime.
Talking about bringing community courts to Surrey, Rasode said her plan would move the focus on a more community-based approach than what the others were promising.
However, Hepner interjected that community courts were exactly what Surrey First had been advocating for "for many years," and accused Rasode of only making an issue of it after the murder of Julie Paskall at the end of 2013.
As Rasode and Hepner talked over one another, McCallum threw his up his hands and, channeling Gordon Wilson, said, "This is what’s been wrong with Surrey. All council has done in the last few years is bicker back and forth."
Hepner took that as an opportunity to tell the crowd, "This is a man who led the city to where we had the most violent record of crime in 15 cities and we became the car-theft capital not in Canada, but in the English-speaking world."
On Newton’s rising crime, McCallum said during his time as mayor he developed a Newton Town Plan that’s been collecting dust since he left office. That plan, according to McCallum, would see the land around the Newton Wave Pool be developed into four all-weather soccer fields, and eliminate pay-parking in that area.
Rasode said she’s long been an advocate for Newton and "broke the silence" at city hall that something needed to be done for the area.
"I stood up and said our strategy is not working and called for open and transparent meetings because council was not available… I do not have to wait for a report from an academic to that tells us we’re falling behind," she said.
Hepner stated the use of crime to score political points in the election was one of "political expediency" and said crime is an issue in every community across Canada. She then touted plans to introduce facial-recognition technology in the city to help better identify high-risk offenders in the community.
McCallum said after weeks of door-knocking he’s heard clearly from residents that there is a perception of fear in the community and people go to sleep wondering if their cars might be broken into come morning.
In response to a perception that some candidates may be "fear-mongering" for political gain, Rasode asked anyone to say that to the family members of murdered residents Julie Paskall or Serena Vermeersch, the neighbourhoods where they’ve taken to conducting nightly patrols themselves or to businesses closing down in Newton because of the area’s crime.
Looking at transportation, arguably the second key issue for residents, all three candidates actually agreed that Surrey should be next in line for transit funding. With all supporting the LRT vision for Surrey it was also noted by each that they would have to lobby higher levels of government to make it happen.
Hepner reminded the audience that McCallum was the chair of the TransLink board when projects like the money-losing Golden Ears Bridge and Canada Line were approved.
"Why the Canada Line and not Surrey?" she asked him. "Where was your voice when Canada Line went in?"
Responding to an audience question about City Centre and what may lie in the future for the area, McCallum said he was all about encouraging more anchor organizations like SFU to set up in the area. He also took it as a chance to criticize the newly built city hall, saying the true costs could be anywhere from $150-$200 million rather than the $97 million touted by the current council.
"There is not one benefit to taxpayers in this city," he said of the structure, noting that he would consider using the building for something like another SFU and perhaps moving back to the old city hall site.
Hepner defended the site, saying it required "guts and vision" to place city hall in City Centre.
"I’m very proud that we went ahead and built a city hall that’s created the Robson Square of our city," she said. "It cost $97 million and we went over budget by $2 million because we put in childcare."
Hepner also added "there is nothing the matter with Surrey," which elicited a strong reaction from the crowd.
"We have some issues that need resolving, but it is not a lockdown city," she said. "We have 2,000 businesses every year moving here. Fifteen thousand in the last nine years have opened up in Surrey."
In their closing statements, the candidates reminded residents one last time that they each offered voters something different.
McCallum cited a $150 million city hall, last year’s record 25 murders and a 21 per cent increase in crime this year as reasons why the current council has fallen out of touch with residents.
"It’s time to get back to fiscally responsible, simple government."
Hepner reiterated the current council’s track record was a positive one, saying Surrey First kept taxes low for residents while creating a great climate for economic investment.
"We have to look at what our vision is. We’ve transformed the city and imagine how far we can go. We need to do that together."
Rasode said it was time for council to commit to engaging with residents and adopting comprehensive, caring approaches to issues like crime and transportation,
"My commitment is to treat Surrey with the same heart you treat our homes with. I want to honour neighbourhoods and make sure our think tank is engaged in setting a vision for our city."