COLUMN: Time for a return to wards in Surrey

A competitive race for mayor in this fall’s election in Surrey has brought the issue of wards to the fore.

Once a topic that only the longshots were willing to talk about, the issue of neighbourhood representation on council is now mainstream. Former mayor Doug McCallum kicked off the discussion, by saying when he announced his candidacy that wards would be implemented after he is elected.

Surrey First candidate, Coun. Linda Hepner, is the least enthusiastic (not surprising, given how her slate benefits from the at-large system of electing councillors), but she is willing to hold a referendum on the topic in 2018. Assuming such a referendum passed, it would be at least 2022 – eight years from now – before there would be election of candidates in wards, which essentially are the equivalent of the provincial or federal ridings Surrey citizens are used to.

Coun. Barinder Rasode, who is also planning to run for mayor, says she is hearing a lot about wards from residents. She favours a hybrid system, with some councillors elected at-large, in the entire city, and some in wards. She sees no need for a referendum, but would like extensive public consultation.

Vikram Bajwa, who has run for mayor before and is running again this year, says wards are “nine years overdue,” but he still wants a referendum on the issue first.

I’ve argued many times in this space for wards, and here’s the Coles Notes version of why Surrey needs such a system of electing at least some members of council.

One is that it is prohibitively expensive to run for office in a city the size of Surrey, and reach hundreds of thousands of potential voters. Face-to-face contact is impossible. Unless a candidate is very wealthy, it is impossible to mount an effective campaign and reach most voters through advertising, flyers or social media.

Thus the candidates who win are in almost always one way or the other part of a slate or electoral group – Surrey First, Surrey Electors Team, Surrey Civic Electors, Surrey Municipal Electors or Surrey Voters Association – over the past 40 years.

The last true independent to run and win a seat on council was Jeanne Eddington in the 1990s, who had a high profile before she ran the first time, due to her citizen activism. It took her several tries to get elected, and she never won her seat by large margins.

A second argument for wards is that people can more easily get through to a council member who is familiar with their neighbourhood and its specific issues. Most candidates who will win, if wards are established, will be residents of that area. They will know it intimately and be responsive to issues raised by their neighbours.

This is not to say that at-large councillors don’t try to get familiar with neighbourhood issues, but Surrey is too large, both geographically and in population, for any of them to know the entire city well.

A third argument is that wards will boost voter turnout. Every part of Canada outside B.C. has wards in larger cities. A truly local election involves candidates actively campaigning in neighbourhoods and seeking support in a more personal fashion. When my son was going to university in Kingston, Ont., he was approached by several candidates for council in his ward, on the doorstep, who asked for support. Kingston is much smaller than Surrey, with a population of about 100,000.

Boosting voter turnout in local elections is critical, because local governments make decisions that affect all of us every day. A higher turnout in Surrey elections, particularly as they will now be four years apart, is something all candidates should support.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.


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