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Surrey councillors ruffled by ‘rude’ public and ‘emotional instability’ in chambers

Surrey’s short budget process fell off the rails on Monday amidst political turmoil
Coun. Doug Elford of the Safe Surrey Coalition inside council chambers at Surrey City Hall | Photo: Graeme Wood

Surrey councillors who voted in favour of the controversial 2020 budget but remained peculiarly silent during back-to-back public meetings on Monday claim “emotional instability” and “rude” members of the public in council chambers kept them from expressing their views.

Coun. Laurie Guerra said she didn’t speak because of the boisterous audience, which had been told numerous times by Mayor Doug McCallum not to applaud after someone spoke negatively of the budget, which puts a hiring freeze on new police officers and firefighters and is devoid of significant major capital projects.

Guerra said some members of the public had been “rude” by shouting at council members.

Furthermore, Coun. Doug Elford said Coun. Steven Pettigrew disrespected him when Pettigrew asked all members of Elford’s Safe Surrey Coalition slate to explain their reasons for supporting the budget.

“I was a little bit mad at my colleagues, in part. I felt it was best for a cooling off period,” said Elford on Wednesday.

During a two-hour finance committee meeting held Monday afternoon, 28 of 29 speakers spoke in opposition to, or questioned, the budget. However, coalition members, including McCallum, did not speak or ask staff questions. Later that night, coalition members again declined any comment in what became a 35-minute technical process to adopt 43 individual bylaws related to taxes and spending.

“I just wanted to apologize to the people of Surrey. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what we’ve just done. In 28 minutes, we’ve destroyed so many lives,” Pettigrew said at the meeting. He voiced concerns about a lack of public investment outside of a $45 million two-year police force transition from the RCMP to the envisioned Surrey Police Department.

After all four dissenting councillors explained their decision and the coalition members had an opportunity to speak but declined, Pettigrew then asked them to provide comment and justification for their decision.

“There was some emotional instability I was worried about. I thought, ‘Let’s get through this,’” said Elford, referring to Pettigrew’s apology.

Elford also said the public audience was hostile. “I read the audience there and the majority of people, and it wasn’t the opportune time. And I don’t like being called out like that.”

McCallum had said the week before he’d hold his comments until after the public engagement.

When the reading of bylaws was finished and McCallum adjourned the final meeting, one woman in the council chamber stood up and yelled out, “This is how democracy dies.”

Elford said he knew he could speak to media after the vote and a “cooling off period.”

Likewise, McCallum spoke to media after the meeting. When asked, he said he did not instruct his colleagues to remain silent.

McCallum said it was “one of the best” budgets in his 11 combined years as mayor.

Pettigrew said Thursday he was justified in asking other council members to speak.

“We’re in a public situation, and people have a right to know how a council member has a view on any subject,” he said. “It’s part of our duty as a councillor to justify our views.”

Elford clarified that he voted in favour of the budget because the police transition is his number one priority and he made a campaign promise to keep taxes low. In order to do both, he acknowledged the budget is “lean” in other parts.

On October 20, 2018, McCallum won the mayor’s seat with 41% of the popular vote in what was a three-way race. Seven councillors who ran on his coalition slate also won, creating an eight-member strong coalition on the nine-seat council. However, three, including Pettigrew, have left the fold, citing broad concerns over transparency of the police transition. Last year, Pettigrew and Couns. Brenda Locke, Jack Hundial and Linda Annis voted against the capital budget that cancelled 17 projects — the first significant sign of a rift in the coalition.

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