Rich Coleman, BC Liberal minister responsible for gaming, says the hearing conducted by Surrey into the Gateway Casinos project’s gaming licence was not a public hearing in a strict sense and had no legal process around it.
Coleman, still facing a chorus of disapproval – including jabs from the NDP, BC Conservatives and online commenters – over perceived interference in the failed proposal, which he had supported, said Monday that it was time to move on.
“At the end of it, there may have been some things said emotionally by some folks who worked on both sides of this thing, and people just have to let it settle down,” he said.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts acknowledged Monday that the hearing was a public information meeting in the form of a public hearing, and not subject to the same legislated legal strictures as a land-use public hearing.
But because it functioned in the same way in providing public input for the decision, outside intervention should have been avoided “out of respect for the entire process,” she said.
“When you’re the regulator, there’s a fine line to walk,” she said. “People have to be very careful in making sure it’s an open and transparent process.”
Coleman had explained that Surrey council initiated the project by rezoning land three years ago and asking BCLC to develop a plan to transfer a gaming centre licence from the Newton area to South Surrey.
“Then [Surrey] told us this is the only one they’re doing, so go there,” Coleman said. “Then the proponent went and spent a lot of money designing it, went through all the questions, added a convention centre, restaurants and all that stuff. And then the hearing wasn’t actually a [land use] public hearing, so there was no legal process around it.”
Premier Christy Clark broke her silence Monday to reject criticism of her government’s handling of the proposal, including phone calls Coleman made to two Surrey councillors while hearings were ongoing.
Speaking to reporters at a mineral-exploration conference, Clark brushed aside questions about the cabinet minister’s message to councillors that Surrey wouldn’t see another casino proposal if they voted down the BC Lottery Corporation-backed project.
“He’s the minister responsible,” Clark said. “He got some questions and he answered the questions. I think it was as simple as that. It’s a Crown corporation.”
Neither Clark nor Coleman have responded directly to Peace Arch News’ requests for comment.
BC Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg (Surrey-White Rock), who was sharply critical of Coleman’s actions last week, said Monday that his years of experience as former White Rock mayor suggest to him hearings on a gaming-licence transfer should be subject to the same strictures as a land-use hearing.
He said he would not consider Clark’s statement as a rebuke of his concerns that Coleman’s actions could be interpreted as trying to influence the vote.
“I stand by the position I took,” Hogg said.
Council rejected the project – which would have included a hotel, convention centre and theatre at 168 Street and 10 Avenue – in a 5-4 split vote on Jan. 19, with Watts voting against.
Coleman, who has also received flak for negative comments he and BCLC CEO Michael Graydon made about the city following the vote, issued a conciliatory statement last week lauding Surrey for its “careful consideration” of the South Surrey proposal.
It wasn’t enough to satisfy Watts.
“Making comments after the fact, slamming council for making a decision, was not helpful,” she said.
Both Couns. Tom Gill and Bruce Hayne told PAN last week that Coleman had called them between two public-hearing sessions with the message that there would be no more BC Lottery Corporation proposals for casinos in the city if the South Surrey application was rejected.
The story was picked up by Vancouver media and continues to generate online comment, including calls for Coleman’s resignation.
In a statement released Thursday, the day PAN reported Hogg’s criticisms, Coleman addressed concerns that he had tried to influence the vote.
“I am always open to discuss projects and answer questions for issues falling under my ministry, which is what I did in this case,” he said. “That will not change.”
Responding to questions about Coleman’s and Graydon’s criticisms of council, Clark indicated she sees no problem with the corporation acting as both regulator and advocate of casino proposals.
“Remember the citizens of B.C. are the owners of that company,” she said.
“The government is both the owner of the corporation and the regulator.”
But Clark also upheld Surrey’s right to refuse the casino.
“The City of Surrey made its decision and it was obviously, absolutely the right decision for them. They’re politicians like the rest of us, and they need to make tough decisions sometimes.”
Coleman’s prepared statement was different in tone to his original comments to Vancouver media, in which he had said he and the BCLC had lost confidence in Surrey council and their decision-making process.
Headlined “Surrey gaming decision proves process works,” the release said the minister wanted to express his “appreciation for the time and thoughtfulness Surrey city council and the community as a whole took to examine the merits of the… proposal and to be clear that I respect the final decision.
“We have never put a casino in any community that has not wanted one. That will continue to be the provincial government’s policy.”
That same day, Watts lashed back at Coleman and Graydon.
Watts issued an open letter to BCLC, saying that “Mr. Graydon’s comments show a complete disregard for the public process.”
She later told PAN that Coleman may also have overstepped the boundaries and that comments by Graydon were “even more offensive” to her than Coleman’s calls.
Graydon criticized her for casting the deciding vote after having expressed no concerns, while characterizing Surrey as “very difficult to deal with.”
“To make comments and statements like that clearly crosses the line,” Watts said. “The gaming licence was not a rubber stamp. Why would we have sat there for 13 hours and gone through a contentious public process if it were?”
Watts told PAN she had not received any calls from Coleman during the two-night hearing process, and that he had not delivered the “Gateway or nothing” message to her in earlier conversations on the project.
She said other councillors had not expressed concerns to her about “any phone calls or meetings that may have taken place.”
Polled by PAN, Couns. Barinder Rasode, Barbara Steele and Linda Hepner – all of whom joined Gill voting in favour of the application – said they had not received calls from Coleman during the public hearings.
In the wake of criticism of their votes, the four issued their own joint statement Friday.
“Just about anything we do in life comes with risks and impacts. New and significant initiatives often bring even more risks and impacts,” the councillors said. “The responsibility of making decisions on public projects by elected public officials is a heavy task particularly when there is so much opposition and just as much support.”
While the four said the project was pre-zoned for a casino after council deliberated on a first proposal for the site in 2010, city clerk Jane Sullivan said the previous proposal sits at third reading.
The four said that while they feel BC Lottery Corporation’s licence application was fully compliant with council’s gaming policy, council could still have imposed development-related conditions.
But they said “declining the casino licence application may be viewed as council ‘not acting reasonably or in good faith.’”
– with files from Tom Fletcher