Brazen, retroactive law gives Farnworth powers he said he already had

Opinion: By asking for just-in-case powers, public safety minister is hinting he might not have had the power to force a policing decision on Surrey

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VICTORIA — Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth introduced legislation Monday to provide after-the-fact validation for his decision to force Surrey to proceed with the stand-alone Surrey Police Service.

The legislation specifies “that the city of Surrey must provide policing services through a municipal police department,” as Farnworth ordered back in July.

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Once enacted by the NDP majority in the legislature, Bill 36 would also give Farnworth “the authority to cancel the existing agreement between the province and Surrey for the RCMP’s services.”

In the event of further intransigence on the part of Surrey, the bill allows the government “to appoint an administrator to assume the functions of the Surrey police board to manage the Surrey Police Service.”

Current board members include Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke, who has been at odds with Farnworth over the transition for months. However, Farnworth said Monday no decision has yet been made to take over the board.

He did say that the legislation was necessary to “clarify” the powers in the Police Act and to “end the confusion caused by the city of Surrey.”

The legislative move was as brazen as it was retroactive.

Back on July 17, when Farnworth ordered Surrey council to cancel its plans to go back to the RCMP and continue its transition to the SPS, he insisted he already had the legislative authority to do what he did.

Bill 36 thus constitutes a tacit admission that Farnworth’s powers were maybe not as clear cut as he made out back in July.

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It might also provide a legislative bulwark against Surrey’s legal action in B.C. Supreme Court, which was announced on Friday. The city seeks a judicial review of the province’s power to overrule Surrey council on policing services.

The New Democrats had given the Surrey mayor and council until Friday to respond to a complaint that the city was dragging its feet on the provincially ordered transition to the Surrey Police Service.

Surrey did respond. But in keeping with the Friday the 13th theme, the letter from Mayor Locke to Minister Farnworth was not the satisfactory response that the province was seeking.

“I am writing to provide you, as a courtesy, with Surrey’s petition to the Supreme Court of B.C. for a judicial review of your order to continue with the transition to the Surrey Police Service,” the mayor wrote in part.

“Surrey cannot support a police transition plan that would see Surrey residents face an excessive and exorbitant double-digit tax increase for police costs only and for a police service that will not enhance public safety and may even compromise it.”

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surrey mayor brenda locke
Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke has been opposed to the city transitioning from the RCMP to the Surrey Police Service. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

The blunt tone was in keeping with Locke’s icy reaction to an earlier letter to her from the provincial director of policing services, Glen Lewis, complaining about the lack of progress in the transition.

“It is my observation that this lack of progress and delay is due in large part to a lack of leadership and engagement by city council and city staff,” wrote Lewis.

City staff “consistently state that they are instructed not to engage meaningfully in any work” on the transition until council directs them to, he added.

“I strongly urge that the city rectify these matters forthwith and assume the leadership required to carry out its transition. To this end, I request a report back on the remedy of these items, in writing, from the city by the end of business day, Oct. 13, 2023.”

The contents left no doubt that Lewis was speaking with the full authority of his boss, Public Safety Minister Farnworth.

Still, Locke professed to “have no idea” why the provincial director of policing services would be addressing her.

“He’s a bureaucrat, he should be writing to bureaucrats,” she told reporter Tom Zytaruk of the Surrey Now Leader. “I think it’s rude. He’s not going to instruct the mayor of a city what to do. I’m certainly not going to jump for a bureaucrat in Victoria.”

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The city’s petition to the court argued that the province lacks the legal authority to impose its choice of policing services on the municipality.

“While the Police Act states the minister is responsible for ensuring effective policing throughout B.C., it does not authorize the minister to choose the model of policing for a municipality,” argued Locke.

The city’s legal action is grounded in fiscal concerns. The province promised $150 million over five years to cover the additional cost of going from the RCMP to the SPS. Surrey claims the transition cost will top out at almost $500 milion over 10 years.

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has introduced legislation that will specifically require the City of Surrey to provide policing through a municipal force.
B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has introduced legislation that will specifically require the City of Surrey to provide policing through a municipal force. Photo by CHAD HIPOLITO /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Farnworth fired back that Surrey’s legal action would only add to the cost of the transition.

“I find it hard to understand why the city of Surrey would want to waste taxpayer’s dollars on fighting a decision that’s already been made and is going to be implemented,” he said.

“I‘m very confident that the decision was made appropriately and according to the powers available under the Police Act.”

That was Friday.

But just in case, on Monday Farnworth brought down the legislative hammer to reinforce his power to impose the NDP government’s will on Surrey.

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