Surrey residents fighting against the city’s plan to run two roads through Hawthorne Park say city hall is trying to hinder their access to public places as they try to obtain signatures in support of their cause.
A group of residents associated with Save Hawthorne Rotary Park recently presented council with a 5,000-signature petition calling for the proposed 105 Avenue Road between Whalley Boulevard and 150 Street to “be cancelled as we do not want a road of any kind put through Hawthorne Park. We want Hawthorne Park to be preserved for community, for future generations and for the wildlife living there.”
In response, city council challenged them with an “Alternative Approval Process” requiring them to collect by Sept. 22 the signatures of at least 10 per cent of Surrey’s electors — that’s 30, 372 signatures — in opposition to the plan or council will take further steps to ensure the project gets done.
The group has since sought legal help from West Coast Environmental Law after City Clerk Jane Sullivan wrote in a letter to Steven Pettigrew, a leader of the group, that the City is “requesting that people do not distribute any bulletins, forms, petitions or any other partisan information at Civic facilities or at Civic events to maintain the integrity of this legislated process.”
Pettigrew is incensed.
“It’s just madness. They’re saying go collect 30,000 signatures, but you just can’t go to any public facilities. It’s denying the people of those parks and facilities the right to be able to vote on this issue. It doesn’t make any sort of sense.”
“It’s another thing along the way that we’re just constantly having to put up with from with this city, over and over. It’s just another obstacle,” Pettigrew said. “If we abided exactly by the letter of what they are saying and we did not go onto any public things anywhere it wouldn’t be fatal (to the campaign) but it would definitely be a tremendous hindrance.”
In response to the city clerk’s letter West Coast Environmental Law has furnished the group with a letter stating that members of the public “have a right to distribute political literature and collect signatures in parks, squares, at events that are open to the public, etc. provided that they do so in a manner that is not disruptive to the public function of that land.”
The WCEL letter notes that the Supreme Court of Canada has explained that under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that an individual is “free to communicate in a place owned by the state if the form of expression he uses is compatible with the principal function or intended purpose of that place.”
The law firm’s letter notes the campaigners’ right to collect signatures “would likely receive a high level of legal protection” considering the Alternative Approval Process has been “initiated by the City itself and implicity provides for the right of citizens to collect signatures.”
Pettigrew said campaign members will be encouraged to carry the WCEL letter with them, to show should they encounter any grief.
“The security at the city hall and all the police that I’ve talked to, they just think this is a non-event,” Pettigrew said. “We’re respectful, we’re quiet, we obey the rules and they don’t have a problem with it. I really see it as a direct attack upon our organization, by the City, to try to slow us down and stop us.”
Acting Mayor Tom Gill said the City wants to make sure responses comes from qualified voters who live in Surrey.
He said he’s had personal experiences where he’s “been approached by some very aggressive individuals” who “would not let me be until I signed the petition that I signed it, my intent was not to sign it, so that’s some re-occurring experience that I’ve had over the last decade I’ve been on council. That has to be factored in.”
Asked if he’s suggesting the residents involved in the Hawthorne campaign are bullying people in parks, he replied, “by no means am I suggesting that, I’m just telling you that my experience tells me that there are many times when petitions go around that people are unaware, are in a hurry, they sign things just to be able to carry on with their business. That’s been a re-occuring theme over the last 10 years and I’ve heard a lot of people just trying to get out of a situation where they’re not being fully engaged, they’re being lobbied.”
Asked if he agrees with the premise that members of the public have the right to distribute political literature and collect signatures in parks, squares or public places, the acting mayor replied, “There’s no question, I think being able to distribute that kind of stuff, as long as it’s in a manner that’s professional and unbiased, I personally have no issues with it. But certainly I think the context of the conversation, I think if I heard you correctly, is that the city clerk had the request, but by no means does it say that you can’t. That’s my understanding.”
The Now-Leader asked Gill if this is just a request, and not an order, what informs it and why bother?
“The only thing that is the most important to me is when this information comes back, it’s unbiased,” he said, and to “make sure there’s some legitimacy to the paperwork that comes back.”
Asked what he means by “unbiased,” as people will of course have a bias if they are signing a petition, Gill replied, “That’s why I told you there’s been individuals who have come up to me in the past” and “I was convinced to sign this petition when in retrospect maybe I shouldn’t have.”
By that logic, the Now-Leader respectfully pointed out, the same could apply to voter regret in their choice of who to elect to public office.
“Absolutely,” Gill conceded.