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Rob Shaw: NDP checkmates Surrey into a local police force, says alternative is moving backwards

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth outmanoeuvres and trumps Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth at last won the game of chess with the Surrey mayor to decide the direction of policing in the city. Photo Dan Toulgoet


There wasn’t much else to say after Solicitor General Mike Farnworth made his final moves Wednesday in the political game of chess he’s been waging against Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke over the future of policing in the city.

Surrey will not be allowed to return to the RCMP, as Locke had promised in her municipal election campaign, and will instead be required to continue with its transition to a municipal force called the Surrey Police Service, Farnworth announced.

The end had been forecast for months, after Farnworth put in place a binding set of conditions on returning to the RCMP that the province knew Locke could never meet. The mayor, boxed in, had almost no moves left to make other than to bluster as Farnworth outmanoeuvred her.

Locke did try getting RCMP brass, along with expert Peter German, to craft an HR plan that re-staffed Surrey with Mounties without pulling them from other B.C. RCMP detachments and plunging smaller communities into a policing shortage. But the province had set that bar so high on the staffing particulars, that Surrey ultimately couldn’t meet the requirements.

“For the second time, the city has failed to demonstrate moving back to the RCMP will be safe and not impact other communities across the province,” said Farnworth.

Or, to put a sharper point on it: “It’s just not safe to go backwards.”

Farnworth cited 1,500 hard and soft RCMP vacancies in B.C., a recruitment-to-retirement deficit of more than 200 Mounties per year, and the threat that the RCMP wouldn’t be able to run its integrated major crime, traffic and specialized units if it redirected so many officers back to Surrey.

Locke accused Farnworth of “undermining” her local government, and said she will “explore our options” to respond. That may include a lawsuit.

“It is very clear the City of Surrey never had a choice in this matter,” Locke said in a statement. “We had a choice so long as we chose Minister Farnworth’s option.”

It’s debatable whether the drama that has played out over the last few months was truly necessary, from either side.

Locke turned the dispute into a nasty war of words, calling Farnworth a misogynist and a bully. She forced everyone, from the premier to senior government officials, to sign a non-disclosure agreement to see city documents on policing — a petty power play that backfired by infuriating Farnworth, who went out of his way several times Wednesday to say he’ll be changing the law so no mayor can ever do that again.

On the other side, the government allowed public confidence in policing in Surrey to dwindle by failing to put a stop to the fight months ago.

Politically, the BC NDP wanted to avoid being drawn into a municipal fracas that could threaten the popularity of its seven MLAs in the Surrey region, four of whom are cabinet ministers.

It tried, several times, to step away from the fight between Locke and mayoral predecessor Doug McCallum, offering instead a “strong recommendation” and $150 million in financial incentives in April to give Locke a face-saving off-ramp to stick with the SPS. Locke wouldn’t take it.

Provincial officials continue to insist Farnworth didn’t have the power under the Police Act to act earlier and order Surrey to stay with the SPS until it became a provincial policing crisis, which occurred once the city voted last month to move forward with an RCMP plan that put other communities at risk.

It’s not a particularly compelling argument, given the years successive B.C. governments have used that same law to boss around communities when it comes to policing.

But, regardless, Farnworth said he intends to change the Police Act this fall to give him broader powers to intervene earlier and to restrict municipalities from changing their minds on policing mid-transition.

“It’s certainly not my intention to take away from local government powers,” he said.

“I do think all of us in the province and local governments have learnt a lot through this whole process. There are some real challenges.”

BC United leader Kevin Falcon, whose party has also tried to avoid wading too far into the issue, accused the NDP of bungling the file by taking too long to make up its mind and costing Surrey taxpayers millions of dollars.

“It’s just staggering for five years they’ve allowed this nightmare to stagger along without any real leadership for the province,” he said.

“I think that lack of leadership and transparency is why we have a divided community, a divided police force and an uncertain transition timeline.”

One of the more bizarre moments of Wednesday’s decision was the NDP government’s decision to appoint Jessica McDonald as strategic implementation advisor on Surrey policing.

The BC NDP in Opposition was a vocal critic of McDonald when she was deputy minister to BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell and then CEO of BC Hydro under Christy Clark.

As an early architect of the Site C dam project while in Hydro, she was a frequent target of New Democrats like Adrian Dix and John Horgan. One of the NDP’s first acts upon taking power in 2017 was to have the BC Hydro board fire McDonald. Taxpayers paid out $423,500 in severance just for the fact New Democrats just couldn’t stomach working with her.

Why the NDP would bring her back now for such a sensitive file, remains a bit of a mystery. Farnworth was asked several times Wednesday to justify the decision, versus other qualified experts with actual policing experience.

“She is someone with a thorough understanding of how governments work,” Farnworth replied. That credential is not exactly hard to find in Victoria.

Even BC United was unimpressed.

“I have lots of time for Jessica, but I’m a little concerned about her lack of policing background,”said Falcon. “I do think that would be helpful.”

With the Surrey decision now final, Farnworth said the goal this fall is to make sure the mess does not  repeat the next time a municipality’s infighting spills over into election promises on policing.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see any government be in this situation again,” he said.

On that, at least, there is likely widespread agreement from all players in this mess.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]