Wowsers - I'm impressed.
Apparently the snide "Development First" tag isn't an appropriate fit for Mayor Dianne Watts and her Surrey First party.
When Watts and company swept all eight councillor positions and the mayor's chair in the 2011 municipal elections my initial reaction was: That's amazing - and that's also disturbing.
A complete sweep of all available positions by one party in any election, at any level, is rarely a good thing. In addition to sowing the seeds of potential for arrogance and irresponsible behaviour, such a result cannot be good for democracy.
As I wrote after that election, "One civic party cannot possibly accurately reflect all of the voters in Surrey, but we now have a council where everybody sitting in the fancy chairs at the front of the room drinks from the same Kool-Aid container."
But as we discovered early Saturday morning, Surrey First has several Kool-Aid jugs. On election night, Watts promised claims her Surrey First group would bring a wide range of viewpoints to the council chamber and in their first serious test, they proved her correct in rejecting the proposed casino/conference centre/hotel development in a rural area of South Surrey.
Watts herself put an exclamation point on her council's open-mindedness by casting the deciding "no" vote herself in a 5-4 decision. Give the woman credit - she delivers on her promises.
Cynics might say the vote was orchestrated, but those allegations don't pass the smell test. If Surrey council had their minds made up all along about the fate of the plan, why would council members sit through more than 13 hours of open hearings on the issue before staging their dramatic vote at 2 a.m. when only the hyper-caffeinated were watching the live stream of the event on their computers?
This vote was a bold statement by Watts and company. Deserved or not, Surrey First is seen as a right-of-centre party with a reputation of being developer friendly. Opponents have slapped them with an assortment of labels: pro-growth being the nicest, tree killers being the most obnoxious.
Early Saturday morning, Watts and the rest of Surrey First put the lie to those accusations - at least temporarily.
Make no mistake; this was not an easy decision for any municipal politician to deal with. On the one hand, the casino must have been extremely tempting with it's promise of jobs, spinoff development and, of course, millions of dollars in revenue. Each month, more than 1,000 people move to Surrey, a growth rate that puts enormous pressure on civic officials to keep pace with infrastructure and city services.
All of those things require money and here was a development that offered the opportunity for a hefty boost to the civic bottom line. On the flip side, there was a significant push back from residents concerned about a litany of issues including anti-gambling, environmental impact, traffic congestion, property values, and a potential rise in crime.
One thing was clear: No matter what decision the Surrey First council made, people were going to be mad at them.
To their credit, Watts and Surrey First did the prudent thing: they listened. They held 13 hours of public hearings over a four-day span where all of the aspects of the proposal were brought forward - often multiple times. Of course, this was probably just the tip of the iceberg of information swamping the councillors' email inboxes and draining the batteries of their cellphones.
It wasn't long before the backlash of the Surrey council decision was felt as within hours, provincial deputy premier Rich Coleman issued a blast at Watts that included a promise that Surrey would never get another chance at a casino. Really Rich? A mayor and council side with their constituents on an issue and you believe they should be punished for it?
Watts will thank you for the extra votes your boneheaded statement will bring her next time Surrey goes to the polls in 2014.
There are still questions surrounding their decision, the biggest being whether Watts and council would pay as close attention to residents' concerns if the same proposal was offered to, say, Whalley or Guildford instead of Surrey First's electoral power base in South Surrey.
No matter where you stand on this particular issue, however, you have to respect the process in which Surrey council approached the proposal. They listened before making a decision, a refreshing and somewhat novel approach to politics in this country of late.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Email your thoughts on this issue to firstname.lastname@example.org or snail-mail a letter to Suite 201-7889 132nd Street, Surrey, B.C., V3W 4N2. Include full name, address and phone number for verification purposes.
Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@ thenownewspaper.com
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