The Safe Surrey Coalition majority on city council passed a motion Monday afternoon designed to “protect the democratic process” by banning some speakers from attending public hearings, toward “ensuring a safe and respectful environment” for council and staff.
“Our democracy provides for freedom of thought, opinion and speech, but when the discourse devolves into aggressive and disorderly behavior, we must ensure that council and city staff are able to carry out their duties without fear of verbal assault and harassment,” Mayor Doug McCallum said in a written statement. “I am disappointed by the ongoing hostile behaviour of these particular individuals which is why council has felt it necessary to put these measures in place.”
The controversial move is being roundly denounced.
The motion was passed during the first land-use meeting Sept. 13 after the summer break.
A press release issued Monday by the City of Surrey says people who have “repeatedly disrupted and verbally harassed” council and city staff during public hearings will now be “provided the opportunity” to submit questions and comments by writing.
“These individuals have been given notice of the changes in how they can participate in public meetings, which also outlines that physical access to Council Chambers will not be granted,” the press release states.
South Surrey resident Ivan Scott, organizer of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey campaign, issued a statement Tuesday saying that seven members of his citizens’ group, including himself, were sent an email Monday night from the city clerks department informing them that they have been prohibited from “physically attending council chambers for council and committee meetings or from participating remotely at these meetings.”
“The reason for this prohibition is due to your conduct at previous Council meetings and public hearings, where you have repeatedly disrupted the orderly conduct of Council meetings and harassed Council members and City staff, and/or raised matters that were irrelevant to the bylaw being considered at the public hearing contrary to section 52.1 of Surrey Council Procedure By-law, 2004, No. 15300,” the city’s edict continues.
“You may still participate in Council meetings and public hearings by submitting your comments in written form prior to the presentation of the public hearing item(s) that you wish to comment on.”
Coun. Laurie Guerra read their names out loud during the public meeting.
The Now-Leader has chosen not to name them.
Coun. Steven Pettigrew, who did not support the ban, told council “this is very thin ice that we are treading on.”
He asked if the city’s legal department had “looked at this from a legal perspective.” He was told by staff that “unfortunately” the matter couldn’t be discussed in an open public forum.
“I’d be extremely offended if my name was mentioned in the public like this,” Pettigrew said, “and I expect they would be extremely offended as well.”
Scott said his group will respond to this “illegal action by the City of Surrey and the Mayor’s Safe Surrey Coalition with legal action in defence of our rights guaranteed under the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Monday’s was the first meeting in many months in which council met physically in chambers, with its members separated by plexiglass.
Coun. Linda Annis, of Surrey First, said banning “pro-RCMP supporters” from council chambers is “about as undemocratic as it gets.”
“Silencing people, particularly people opposed to you, is what politicians do when they’ve given up on democracy,” Annis said.
“Having to sit and watch this take place at today’s council meeting reminded me that democracy is fragile. A blow like this feels like there will be more to come as Doug McCallum continues to distance council from the people who put us here in the first place.”
Coun. Brenda Locke also denounced the move. “It’s unreal,” she told the Now-Leader.
Linda Hepner, who was Surrey’s mayor from 2014 to 2018 before retiring from public office, began a decades-long career in 1985 as a staff manager at city hall before entering the political arena.
“In my history of being at city hall for more than three decades I can assure you that there were times that politicians thought that there were lots of people that they would like to not hear from, but never in my wildest dreams would I have assumed you could simply make a motion to say let’s keep that voice quiet,” she told the Now-Leader.
“That’s unheard of, and in my mind flies in the face of any kind of transparency or democracy. In 33 years of being there, there were lots of people you would like to say I hope I never have to hear that voice again.
“Never would you have suggested let’s make a motion to quiet it.”