BOOTH: Turbulence shaking Surrey’s single-slate city council

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, gleaning information on the workings of the ruling communist party was a task best suited to cryptographers and the readers of tea leaves.

Official statements were pretty much useless since everybody toed the party line at the risk of a one-way ticket to a gulag in Siberia. With this in mind, Western analysts were left to decode the shifts in the communist power structure through clues provided by newscasts and press releases.

The seating chart for the annual May Day parade in Red Square revealed who was a rising star and who was dropping out of favour. The closer you sat to the president, the higher your status. If you moved from the front row to the back row, that was a good indication your status had diminished.

The most telling statement that a president had died and a change of power was imminent came when all programming on Soviet television was pre-empted in favour of orchestral music.

Gleaning information from single-party governments is never easy. The Soviet Union provides the best examples but similar circumstances with single-party governments exist in places like North Korea, China, Iran and, of course, Surrey city council.

For the past two years, the Surrey First slate has held an iron grip on the keys to the council chamber, thanks to electoral results that handed the group every seat on the business side of the room, including the mayor’s chair.

When questioned about the dangers of having one party holding every seat on council, Surrey First members sing a remarkably similar tune: "We’re not really a party, we’re actually a coalition of independent councillors who are free to speak and act as we wish. Here, try some of this delicious Kool-Aid."

Independent, codependent – whatever you want to call it, this shiny, happy coalition worked well on the surface for a year or so, but in the last several months, signs have emerged that all is not well in the Surrey First electoral paradise.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what is unfolding behind closed doors, but something is definitely afoot. On the main stage, we have Mayor Dianne Watts behaving oddly. For the first seven years on the job as the city’s mayor, Watts built a solid reputation as a strong leader with an astute knack for staying one step ahead of trouble.

Not so much any more. In the last three months, her worship has made some very unWattslike errors. First she showed she was dancing to a different soundtrack than Surrey council on the matter of rail relocation in South Surrey. Another eyebrow raiser came in the wake of the Julie Paskall murder in Newton, when Watts refused to address safety in the community, dismissing it as a "conversation for another time."

The latest Watts slip up arose when it was revealed the mayor clicked "like" on social media posts attacking Surrey First Coun. Barinder Rasode. Not once, but four times. Watts claimed the clicking was done in error, but the emotionally and intellectually engaged Dianne Watts who occupied the mayor’s chair from 2005 to 2012 would not have made such an "error."

While all of this is going on, Surrey First members have suddenly developed a love for microphones and television cameras.

Coun. Tom Gill broke his self-imposed vow of silence to lead a spirited verbal attack on New Westminster over the issue of the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.

Coun. Marvin Hunt is currently wearing two hats as Surrey councillor and provincial MLA and refuses to relinquish hold on either.

Rasode has undergone a remarkable personality change in the last six months. After years of posting feel good nonsense about sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere in Surrey, Rasode is suddenly the voice of the people demanding action on so many issues she has been accused of grandstanding.

So we have a disengaged Watts leading a group of "independents" who are suddenly working too hard to increase their public profiles. Interesting developments to be sure and it leads one to conclude there are two possible plots at work here. The first conclusion is that a split is in the works that will see a new political party created to challenge Surrey First in November’s civic election.

Rasode herself denies this and says she is proud to be a member of Surrey First – here, have some more Kool-Aid – and is definitely not looking to start a new party. Her public statements, however, are increasingly at odds with her colleagues, which suggests she may be sipping on the sugar-free version of the Surrey First beverage of choice.

The second conclusion is that Watts has checked out and is just putting in time until her term is up. If she doesn’t choose to run again then the current flurry of activity is actually a race for the throne with councillors striving to puff up their images ahead of a charge at the mayor’s chair.

It’s hard to tell what’s really happening behind the scenes given the remarkably similar messages of unity from these "independent" councillors. Watts told the Now‘s Amy Reid Wednesday she plans on running again, but my goodness, the orchestra music is getting kind of loud, don’t you think?

Michael Booth can be reached at

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