Surrey city council has asked staff to prepare a report considering a transition toward a ward system rather than the current “at large” system we use in civic elections today.
Councillor Doug Elford presented a motion at the July 27 council meeting, “That the City of Surrey consider the transition to a ward system of electing City Council representatives.”
Council approved it Monday, after some debate.
A ward system divvies up the city into neighbourhoods with a council member representing one of these electoral regions, much like an MLA or MP represents their particular riding.
Such a system was used in these parts from before 1879 up until 1957, when the provincial government put an end to it in favour of the “at-large” voting system we have today in which voters elect a mayor, councillors and school trustees city-wide. Mayors are still typically voted city-wide under a ward system.
Elford said the current first past the post system “has led to slate politics.
“It’s no secret the many of our previous councils resided in concentrated parts of Surrey, and other parts of Surrey have felt neglected,” he said. “Surrey is ripe for wards. We’re a city of distinct neighbourhoods separated geographically. I believe a ward system will enable community leaders a better opportunity to get elected to council.
“My intention of this motion is to receive a report back from staff for council to consider moving forward,” Elford said. “A majority of large cities across Canada have a ward system in place for a reason.”
Though the motion passed, it received a frosty reception from some councillors. Councillor Linda Annis said the current system costs less to operate and encourages council members to “take a broader, city wide perspective” when it comes to city priorities. A ward system, she said, would mean more council members.
“Do taxpayers really want to pay more for politicians and additional administrative costs?” she said. “Do we want to have ward councillors who limit their attention and focus to a single neighbourhood rather than the broader priorities of the entire city and every Surrey neighbourhood?”
Councillor Brenda Locke said it wouldn’t change first-past-the-post because the wards would be done on the same basis. She said this kind of request should come from residents rather than politicians.
“Elections belong to the people, they don’t belong to us,” she noted. “We’re actually in a conflict-of-interest when we start talking about how we want to change or manipulate an election.”
Councillor Stephen Pettigrew said he couldn’t support Elford’s motion because he found it too “vague.”
“It sounds a bit self-serving,” he added. “A referendum would be a good place to have that.”
Councillor Laurie Guerra said she’d like to see this go to a referendum in the next civic election, which will be on Oct. 15, 2022.
Councillor Mandeep Nagra said he personally finds it “very challenging” to represent all of Surrey’s neighbourhoods fairly, “so I will fully support this.”
Councillor Allison Patton it’s an interesting proposal. “I think that it opens the door for other cities that could consider joining us, such as White Rock.”
Councillor Jack Hundial agreed “nothing less than a referendum would satisfy.”
Mayor Doug McCallum supports setting up a ward system in Surrey. “They work very efficiently in all the big cities,” he said. He too suggested a referendum might be the way to go.
“I think it’s time for Surrey,” he said. “I think it’s certainly something we need to look at as a council.”