Some insights into civic parties in Vanbursuri (Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Richmond)

Surrey First thank you photo surreyfirst-caBC municipal elections will be held on November 15, 2014. We would all do well to understand the nature of political structure in Metro Vancouver region. MetroVanWatch will cover various stories as we discover them this year.

An article by Kelly Sinoski in the Vancouver Sun on November 2, 2013 focuses on Surrey First, the organization led by current Mayor Diane Watts, and we mention it here because it provides information about not only Surrey but also other major municipalities in the region. People elsewhere need to realize that powerful civic parties at the municipal level are an exception. Most have just independents, or slates of candidates. But Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Richmond have powerful political parties — with absolute control of City Hall. And the role of corporate donations from developers is huge. We recommend you read the full article on the Vancouver Sun website, but some excerpts are provided below.

Surrey First: The political non-party — ‘Coalition of independents’ is very much the creation of Mayor Dianne Watts

Main points, with excerpts in italics

  • Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts serves as president and chief executive officer of the Surrey First Electors Society, and hand-picks candidates to prevent special interest groups from taking over City Hall.
  • Municipal elections are still a year away, but one of the two most-powerful parties in the province is already gearing up for the campaign season.
  • unlike major civic political parties such as Vision Vancouver or Burnaby Citizens’ Association, Surrey First won’t hold mass membership drives or nomination meetings to find new candidatesInstead, potential candidates will have to convince Watts and her eight councillors — the sole directors and executive of the Surrey First Electors Society — that they have what it takes to run with the self-described coalition of independents. This is partly because Watts, as the society’s president and chief executive officer, wants to hand-pick candidates to prevent special interest groups from taking over City Hall.
  • The Surrey First constitution, for instance, states the society “will work to elect individuals to council who will adhere to the highest standards of integrity” and “maintain a strong sense of independence and work to keep partisan politics out of City Hall.”
  • “It comes down to what’s in the best interests of the city,” Watts said. “People run for office because they want to effect change. … We don’t have a party line, we don’t bloc vote….
  • Watts insists the group, incorporated under B.C.’s Society Act, is not a regular registered political party. Its membership consists of the nine elected council members and about 60 of their “family and friends.”
  • Developers, real estate agents, land-use consultants and lobbyists aren’t welcome.
  • Such a model underpins Watts’ impetus for starting Surrey First, which was to curb the rampant growth that sprawled across the city in the 1990s in favour of “good” development.
  • “There’s no developers that have any influence in Surrey First,” she said.
  • Yet this doesn’t mean Surrey First has shut the door on developers altogether.
  • They are still among the main contributors to the Surrey First election campaign war chest, just as they are to parties such as Vision Vancouver, Burnaby Citizens’ Association, and Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association.
  • In the last election, Surrey First — as a group — received $304,310 from development, contracting and construction-related businesses.
  • The biggest contributors included Qualico Developments, which donated $11,500, and B&B Contracting, which gave $17,500. Colliers International contributed $8,600, while Anthem Properties donated $6,000.
  • Developers like Concord Pacific, Berezan and B&B Contracting Ltd., along with corporations such as Great Canadian Gaming, also feature prominently …
  • … Patrick Smith, a political-science professor at Simon Fraser University, says that while Surrey First claims not to be a formal political party, it operates just like one.
  • The organization attempts to convince voters that it has no ideology, or that “politics is bad,” Smith said, yet this is contradicted on its own website, which shows solidarity among the mayor and councillors on policy issues surrounding crime and homelessness. Each councillor also states they are a member of “the non-partisan Surrey First team.”
  • Watts maintains there are crucial differences between Surrey First and other civic political organizations. The main difference is that she and her council run the society, while other parties have external executives.
  • … .Only the elected council gets a vote in deciding who gets to run for the organization, basing their decision on a candidate’s “personal belief system and core values,” Watts said, as well as their community involvement, community presence and what they can contribute to the city.
  • This practice applies not just to council candidates but also to the mayor’s seat — if and when Watts decides to leave, it will be up to the council to choose who will run to replace her.
  • Surrey First also does not charge membership fees, unlike other parties which typically charge a minimum of $10 annually to members who can then nominate candidates for council, school and park boards.
  • Watts would not provide The Vancouver Sun with a Surrey First membership list. Watts also did not know specifically how many people attended the organization’s recent annual general meeting. Dirk Lauden, a partner with Borden Ladner Gervais, the registered address for the Surrey First Electors Society, also declined to hand over any information, saying it is only accessible to members.
  • Smith maintains that while the Surrey First model works, he is concerned that it only allows “like-minded” people, which could squeeze out others who have a different view on issues. “In that case, it’s less than fully democratic,” he said.
  • But Watts argues that local governments need not be structured the same way as provincial and federal legislatures, which have an Official Opposition.
  • Although the Surrey First members tend to lean the same way on many policy issues such as crime reduction or densifying the town centre, Watts insists that “very rarely does everybody support one thing.”
  • Watts started Surrey First after she soured on her experience as a member of the former Surrey Electors Team, where she claims she was bullied by then-mayor Doug McCallum. As an independent, Watts stole the mayor’s chair from McCallum in 2005, but the SET majority voted to block her from a seat on the Greater Vancouver Regional District board (now Metro Vancouver). She then created Surrey First, luring three SET defectors — Linda Hepner, Mary Martin and Barbara Steele — to her organization. Hunt and Tom Gill followed later, along with left-leaning councillors Judy Villeneuve and Barinder Rasode.Coun. Bruce Hayne was the latest to join.

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