Surrey city councillor Brenda Locke announced Wednesday her intention to run for mayor next election, thus becoming the first challenger to her former political partner Doug McCallum.
It wasn’t long ago Locke was in lockstep with McCallum, in November 2018 voting for a new municipal police force, scrapping an approved $1.6 billion light-rail line through Newton for SkyTrain to Langley and vowing to improve the city’s infrastructure with so-called “smart development.”
Fast-forward two years and nine months, Locke charges McCallum has “no vision for the future, but is living in his own past.”
McCallum’s three big promises have been checkered by delays and cost overruns. The city has poured most of its resources into transitioning from the Surrey RCMP to the Surrey Police Service (SPS). However, the process will be delayed by about three years, based on an initial report to council in June 2019, and is shrouded in secrecy, critics such as Locke charge.
Locke, who left McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition (SSC) in spring 2019, is now calling for a referendum on the transition. She’s confident the transition will be rejected by residents and says the city will not be at a point of no return to reject the SPS and maintain the RCMP.
The transition is projected to cost about $64 million, but those estimates keep rising and do not include significant infrastructure projects necessary for police departments, such as a training centre and forensics facility. The city may also be underestimating the costs of a new IT system. Locke said such costs, not to mention higher annual operating costs for SPS, could hit taxpayers next term.
The city has already raised its annual capital parcel tax from $100 to $300 per household this year. In effect, this has padded the tax base to pay for the additional police transition costs while keeping community capital projects planned prior to 2018 (although some have been delayed several years). The city is also borrowing $150 million for three new recreation centres.
Locke says she would have accepted some tax increases for adding more capital projects outside the police transition, but “not to that extent.”
Locke also took aim at the deteriorating political scene at Surrey city hall. She and Couns. Jack Hundial and Steven Pettigrew bolted from SSC when they claimed the police transition process became a closed shop. Additionally, McCallum turfed the public safety committee, putting the public further in the dark about crime trends and events. The mayor has also frozen new police officer hires for the past three years, stretching the RCMP’s resources. Meanwhile, non-SSC councillors have been shut out of Metro Vancouver boards and committees, which now have fewer participants.
Locke says she intends to restore committees to their former selves.
She pointed to McCallum’s “bullying” of the Surrey Board of Trade, which was in favour of the light-rail project and has opposed business tax increases and stagnant arts funding, to name a few criticisms it has of the SSC.
Locke is a former BC Liberal MLA from 2001-2005 when she took a seat from the stalwart BC NDP politician Sue Hammell during that party’s infamous implosion. She then had two unsuccessful runs at federal politics as a Liberal and ran again provincially with the BC Liberals under Christy Clark in 2017. She’s liberal on social matters and someone who frequently promotes her volunteer work on mental health advocacy and with her church to bring meals to homeless people in the city.
Locke and Hundial formed the Surrey Connect slate in 2019, leaving Pettigrew as the sole independent and informally aligning with Surrey First Coun. Linda Annis on the vast majority of votes against the SSC.
The last election stirred controversy over who was supporting McCallum’s SSC. The mayor publicly thanked developer Bob Cheema, who has since launched two defamation lawsuits, one against former SSC volunteer Brian Young and another against Hundial.
Cheema is not shown to have donated to SSC. And while the province has changed several campaign finance rules since 2018, municipal candidates still only have to disclose their donors after an election. Locke, in an interview with Glacier Media, said she has no problem disclosing her donors prior to the election. Surrey Connect’s call for a referendum aligns with similar efforts of the RCMP union, the National Police Federation. The slate now counters crafted social media ads to counter the SSC (and vice versa).
While the police transition is expected to take the centre spotlight, McCallum’s other promises, such as SkyTrain and “smart development,” will play a central role in the October 15, 2022, election.
On SkyTrain, Locke conceded the public had been misled by her then SSC slate in 2018.
McCallum asserted the SkyTrain to Langley could be done at the same cost of the light-rail project. Last year, it was determined by TransLink the cost would be about double. Now, it is likely to cost $3.9 billion, if not more. But both senior governments have pledged to pay for it and McCallum has claimed victory.
“I’m very supportive of SkyTrain,” said Locke.
“Do I agree the number was wrong? I understand that now,” she said.
Despite McCallum locking up a much more significant transit project, Locke says the project was still passed over for Vancouver’s Broadway subway extension.
As with transit projects, Locke says Surrey is being looked over too much for housing projects — on a one-to-three basis compared with Vancouver, which is disproportionate to the population difference.
On affordable housing development, Locke cites the need to provide better incentives for rental units, but has no specific plan, to date, to change the city’s relatively low affordable housing charge of $1,000 per unit from market housing developers.
Asked about frequent critiques of the city’s downtown developments by residents, who complain condo towers are too one-sided toward speculator-friendly studio and one-bedroom units, Locke said she has opposed some applications, which over the past three years have relied heavily on community plan amendments to further density.
But overall, robust debate on what is “smart development” has yet to occur at council chambers. Locke did say the city needs to do better at “greening” the downtown core. The group Surrey Environmental Partners has endlessly reminded councillors of the need for trees at each council meeting. The matter came to a head last month when a heat wave killed hundreds across the province and cities and provincial officials were caught off guard. Surrey is losing its urban tree canopy to development and so-called urban heat islands are a factor in heat wave deaths within cities. Locke called on the city to do a better job planning for heat waves but was met with criticism from SSC councillor Allison Patton, highlighting the political stalemate in chambers.
Locke announced her mayoral intentions at Bear Creek Park, the latest flashpoint of controversy where the SSC voted this year to put a road across green space (and under a power line) bordering it. The road has long been part of the city’s transportation upgrades and could alleviate traffic congestion and crashes, at least in the near term.
Joining Locke was a new SSC council candidate Sebastian Sajda, a social activist who said his focus will be climate change mitigation and affordable housing.
Locke says Surrey Connect is expected to run a full slate of eight councillors. She is expected to face a third challenger from Surrey First, said Linda Annis, who is not ruling out a mayoral challenge herself.
Both Annis and Locke acknowledge the mayoral race in 2022 is setting up to be another situation where a candidate could win with less than 40% of the popular vote, as McCallum did in 2018.