Controversial changes to Surrey’s sign bylaw, with respect to political signage, were hotly debated by city council Monday with opponents condemning it as a cynical affront to democracy.
“Residents have every right in a country such as Canada to be able to express their opinions about things on their front lawn without any fear or recourse or fines,” Coun. Linda Annis told council on Monday. “That’s why we live in Canada, it’s a free country and to start to tell people what they can or cannot do on their front lawns, in non-election time, I think is fundamentally wrong. It goes against the principles that most of moved to Canada because of.”
Annis said she was “quite honestly shocked” to see these amendments come before council. “I certainly do have a problem about freedom of expression on your own property. Obviously if it’s something that’s illegal or immoral that shouldn’t be there but if it’s just making a political statement, or a statement about how you feel about something, I think the residents of Surrey and Canada have the right to do that.”
The amendments were passed on a five-to-four vote, with Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Safe Surrey Coalition councillors Allison Patton, Laurie Guerra, Mandeep Nagra and Doug Elford voting in favor and councillors Linda Annis, Jack Hundial, Steven Pettigrew and Brenda Locke voting against.
Locke said “it appears” the amendments are “meant to be specifically applied to signage around the Keep the RCMP group,” whose supporters have signs on their front lawns throughout the city.
“These are private property lawn signs,” she insisted. City solicitor Philip Huynh said the intention is to “standardize” the rules for all political signs “whether there are elections, or referendums, or petitions, or plebiscites.”
“The Charter, of course, protects the right to freedom of expression but that right must be balanced against the community’s interest to preserve order, and these bylaws are intended to strike that balance,” the city’s lawyer said.
“This bylaw is intended to clarify that there are instances when political signs are permissible, particularly actually during a period when there’s a plebiscite, when there’s a referendum. It’s intended to strike a balance to allow such expressions of political thought during the appropriate moments, during the period of the petition,” Huynh said. “That’s actually allowed in the bylaw.”
Amendments to the 1999 bylaw clarify where political signs may be erected and embrace “a broader range of political signs,” Rob Costanzo, Surrey’s general manager of corporate services, told council. “The proliferation of election signage during an election period can be both distracting to motorists and place a significant burden on City resources, at the expense of taxpayers, to ensure compliance,” he stated in a corporate report.
The definition of “political sign” has been broadened to include signs related to political issues, referenda, plebiscites, and initiative and recall petitions. “It will also include signs supporting, opposing, or disapproving of candidates or issues,” Costanzo said. “Currently, the definition only captures signs promoting voting at elections, the election of candidates, or the voting for or support of causes in an election.”
Under the amendments, nobody can place “or permit to be placed” a political sign on public or private property except, in the case of federal or provincial byelection, from when the writ is dropped until 14 days after general voting day, and for civic elections and by-elections, from the first day of the nomination period until 14 days after general voting day.
As for federal or provincial referenda or plebiscites, there is an exception from the establishment date until 14 days after general voting day or 14 days after the deadline for voters to return their ballots to Elections Canada or Elections BC. Same goes for local government assent voting, referenda or plebiscites from the day the text of the question is approved by council or a regional board by bylaw or resolution, until 14 days after general voting day.
Further, the exception also exists in relation to provincial recall or initiative petitions from the day the application is approved in principle by the Chief Electoral Officer of BC until 14 days after the petition is submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer of BC.
Darlene Bennett, organizer of the Surrey Police Vote, an initiative campaign asking the provincial government for a binding referendum on the transition from the Surrey RCMP to the Surrey Police Service, says the Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council is “effectively muzzling signage and other forms of advertising” and that the bylaw amendments clearly target the initiative that she, the widow of a Surrey murder victim launched.
“This is another concerning step in the ongoing attack on democracy in Surrey by the mayor and his slim majority council followers, to suppress the voice of the many residents who are concerned about or oppose their unilateral decisions and tactics related to policing or other issues,” Bennett said.
Coun. Jack Hundial described it as an “extreme over-reach onto people’s personal property.”
“It’s not a good time when we’re in the middle of a citizen’s initiative,” he added.
Surrey resident Karen Chong accuses, in a letter to McCallum and SSC councillors Allison Patton, Laurie Guerra, Doug Elford and Mandeep Nagra of “continuous bullying of the people of Surrey.
“Banning political signs now that are on people’s PRIVATE PROPERTY is showing how tyrannical you are,” Chong’s letter reads.
Meantime, Cloverdale resident Carl Markwart is calling on Premier John Horgan to “protect the citizens of Surrey from Mayor Doug McCallum” after they voted “to ban any political signs on private property.”
“This is a blatant, non-democratic and a dictatorial move to silence opposition,” Markwart told the premier.