Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has joined BC Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg in criticizing B.C.’s minister responsible for gaming for phone calls he made to city councillors during last week’s public-hearing process.
Couns. Tom Gill and Bruce Hayne confirmed to Peace Arch News this week that Minister Rich Coleman contacted them in between two public-hearing sessions to discuss the now-rejected South Surrey casino project.
Following criticisms from Hogg (Surrey-White Rock) that such a call is “inappropriate” as it is open to interpretation that Coleman was trying to influence the decision, Watts Thursday said the minister might have overstepped boundaries.
“I think there’s a very fine line that individuals need to walk,” Watts told PAN. “If you’re a regulator, then act like a regulator. If you’re a proponent, act like a proponent.”
Coleman’s provincial portfolio includes both the BC Lottery Corporation, which championed the project on behalf of Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, and the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, which regulates gaming in the province.
In individual phone interviews Tuesday, Gill and Hayne both said Coleman’s message was that BCLC would not return to Surrey with other casino proposals if the South Surrey project was not approved.
Following the two overnight public-hearing sessions, council ultimately turned down the project – with Gill in favour and Haynes against – in a split decision early Saturday morning in which Watts cast the deciding vote.
Watts told PAN she had not received any calls from Coleman during the hearing process, and that he had not delivered that 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.”
“I’m not privy to the content of the discussions but if (it’s) an effort to lobby or pressure, it’s inappropriate,” she said.
“Even more offensive,” she said, are comments from BCLC CEO Michael Graydon after the vote, in which he criticized her for casting the deciding vote after having expressed no concerns about the project, and he characterized Surrey as “very difficult to deal with.”
“To make comments and statements like that clearly crosses the line,” she said.
“I understand the minister and BCLC are not happy with the decision – I get that. But 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? It doesn’t make sense.”
Watts said she doesn’t feel the split decision has created any rifts on council (all nine members were elected as part of the Surrey First slate in November 2011).
“We’ve always had the policy that everyone on council has a free vote – they have to do what they feel is right,” she said.
“I’ve never once asked any councillor or lobbied any councillor to vote one way or another – that’s how we’ve always functioned. There were strong feelings on this issue, but I would hope there isn’t any fallout from having a split vote.”
Watts said the Gateway project – which would have included a hotel, convention centre and theatre – had undeniable appeal.
“Gateway was a good proposal. Council was looking at different elements that would have made it very attractive to the community. At the same time, the other thing you have to look at is if this something the community wants. If the community’s answer is no, then you need to get back to the drawing board.”
Watts said she feels BCLC’s and Coleman’s position that the casino had to go in the 168 Street and 10 Avenue area “or get nothing” was “short-sighted.”
Watts noted Graydon has since talked about pursuing casino options near South Surrey, such as the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve, just across Highway 99 from the rejected site.
Chances of revisiting the project in some other form in Surrey are slim to none, she added.
“I can only go by the comments of the minister and BCLC, and they have said no. There have to be willing participants to have the discussion, and if there are no willing participants, there’s no discussion.”