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Rob Shaw: Surrey outflanked by the province in its policing destiny

Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke has lost the game, even when left to choose between a local force and the RCMP
Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke speaks to reporters following the B.C. government's announcement on policing in her community.

Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke described the NDP government’s decision on Surrey policing Friday as a game of political chess. It’s an apt metaphor. The only problem is, Locke doesn’t appear to realize she’s already been checkmated.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth swerved expectations on Friday, sidestepping an actual decision on whether Surrey could revert back to the RCMP with a “strong recommendation” it stick with its transition to a municipal force instead.

At first glance, it looked like Locke had won. It was just a “recommendation.” She could simply choose to ignore it and continue to push through her October municipal election promise to bring back the RCMP.

But choice can be an illusion, especially in chess.

BC NDP strategists had clearly spent weeks anticipating every move Locke might make in response. They analyzed her strength in the community, her allies and her city’s budget. Where she saw that “the people of Surrey have been used as a piece on the Solicitor General’s chess board,” as she put it Friday, the NDP, on the other hand, saw the whole board.

Farnworth’s recommendation might not have been binding, but his ministry did issue legal requirements on recruitment that would prevent the RCMP from pulling officers out of other B.C. detachments to get Surrey back up to full strength.

It wasn’t stated outright, but government officials believe it to be near-impossible for the RCMP to find the officers it would need to meet those HR requirements the way the province crafted them. What looks here like an innocuous government hurdle is in fact more a hidden hammer the province can swing to stop the transition in its tracks if necessary in the future.

Then there’s the money.

Farnworth has several times over the past few years refused to commit provincial taxpayer funds to help Surrey change police services. On Friday, he flip-flopped, offering up an almost $150 million bailout over several years.

It’s tempting cash for Surrey council members getting an earful from angry residents over this year’s 12.5 per cent property tax increase, as the city struggles to pay for its police transition.

The provincial funding sets up a clear choice for council.

Councillors can take the province’s money, complete the transition to a municipal force without any more financial surprises and move on to other issues.

Or, they can stick with the RCMP, get hit with $72 million in severance costs from the cancelled transition, and wrestle with financial instability and large tax hikes for the rest of their four-year term.

That prospect of long-term financial pain dovetails into the NDP’s calculation that Surrey residents are just fatigued with the whole policing debate at this point, and want it to go away — no matter what the choice.

Even the Surrey Board of Trade, which had been a staunch supporter of Locke’s RCMP move, issued a statement in the wake of Farnworth’s decision that suggested the city move on to other public safety efforts, and start working on a new economic plan instead.

Only one vote would need to change on Surrey council for the RCMP plan to be scuttled. The vote in November, after Locke’s election victory, passed 5-4. There are already quiet rumblings that the provincial cash, logistical hurdles and voter fatigue are enough for at least one member of Locke’s team to switch their vote at a future council meeting.

Locke, then, appears to have almost no moves left to make. Her allies are softening. Her councillors could be swayed by provincial money. And even if she continues to charge forward with the RCMP, an HR trap cleverly-laid by the province would eventually stop her, leaving only more money wasted in the process.

You have to give New Democrats credit for the plan. They’ve steadfastly refused to get drawn into the policing decisions made by the last two mayors. Instead, they’ve boxed Locke in on all sides with incentives and consequences for every move she could make.

The government is now simply waiting for Locke to come to the obvious conclusion herself. The game is lost. Time to forfeit, and move on.

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]