The City of Surrey will consider adopting a ward system following a 6-3 decision Monday at city hall, where many of the common arguments for and against were heard.
Coun. Doug Elford tabled the proposal to examine the system, which sees council members representing specific neighbourhoods rather than the entire city.
“It’s no secret many of our previous councils have resided in concentrated parts of Surrey and other parts of Surrey have felt neglected,” Elford said. “Surrey is ripe for wards.”
Elford is a member of the Safe Surrey Coalition slate led by Mayor Doug McCallum, a long-time proponent of wards or neighbourhood constituencies.
“It is a city with distinct neighbourhoods, separated geographically,” Elford said. “I believe a ward system will enable community leaders a better opportunity to get elected to council. It clarifies to its citizens who to speak to when addressing problems in the neighbourhood.”
Surrey had wards until 1957, when the provincial government abolished the system. The province now allows wards under the Local Government Act, but only one B.C. municipality, Lake Country, uses them. All that is required to change from an at-large voting system is a change of bylaws, approved by the province’s Lieutenant Governor, although referendums have been customary – as was the case in Vancouver in 2004 when 54% rejected the concept.
A lack of an apparent grassroots movement had some councillors wary of Elford’s motion. Councillors Steven Pettigrew, Brenda Locke and Linda Annis voted against having staff table a report.
“The citizens haven’t come to us,” said Locke, adding any initiative that doesn’t have widespread support would be considered a conflict of interest on the part of council.
Pettigrew suggested city staff test the waters with community associations.
Annis cited added costs of ward systems, since they often require more councillors, each with their own budget and office.
Annis also mentioned some of the negative aspects of wards.
“Do we want to have ward councillors who limit heir focus to a single neighbourhood rather than the broader priorities of the entire city and every neighbourhood? Right now any Surrey resident can call any councillor to help them with an issue.”
McCallum noted all major Canadian cities outside B.C. have ward or hybrid systems.
“I think we’ve grown to the extent that the governance of Surrey would be far more effective in a ward system than an at-large system,” said McCallum.
In principle, a ward system effectively suppresses any one region of a city from becoming overrepresented. Elford alluded to how many council members have historically come from South Surrey and areas such as Newton and Whalley have been underrepresented.
Surrey has at least six distinct regions: Whalley, Guildford, Fleetwood, Newton, Cloverdale and South Surrey. However many of those could be split into distinct neighbourhoods themselves, all of which have distinct demographics, such as age, race and income.
Coun. Mandeep Nagra was supportive of the examination of wards.
“I live in Newton. I know Newton more than I do Clayton or Cloverdale,” said Nagra.
Coun. Laurie Guerra suggested the initiative be taken to a referendum next election.