Recording shows gulf between Surrey mayor, province in police dispute

Rare fly-on-the-wall view of their discussion on June 15, 2023, is only possible because recording was filed as a sworn affidavit as part of a B.C. Supreme Court judicial review of how Surrey will be policed

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A 36-minute recorded conversation between B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke just hours before her council voted a second time to halt a transition to a municipal police force and stick with the RCMP shows in clear terms the gulf that existed between the two sides.

The rare fly-on-the-wall view of their discussion on June 15, 2023 is only possible because the recording was filed as a sworn affidavit by Michael Snoddon, Farnworth’s chief of staff, as part of a B.C. Supreme Court judicial review of how Surrey will be policed.

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That court hearing of the city’s effort to overturn the B.C. government’s decision to force the transition to the Surrey Police Service (SPS) is underway this week.

In the meeting 10 months ago, Farnworth is trying to get Locke to put the vote on hold in order to hammer out specific details on how Surrey will meet conditions required to continue the transition. Those conditions had been set by Farnworth seven weeks earlier and included individualized human resource plans for SPS officers to ensure there was not a mass exodus, and a revised city plan that did not prioritize Surrey RCMP re-staffing over other RCMP vacancies in the province.

Listen to the recording here or scroll down for written excerpts

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Locke said there would be a plan, and it would have the support of the RCMP, but the details would be sorted out by staff after the vote.

Farnworth asked Locke to put in place a detailed plan ahead of the vote to show how the conditions would be met, and warned that if they were not he must carry out his statutory obligations to ensure adequate and safe policing throughout the province.

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“It is crucial that my ministry staff are able to see the report, so that I am confident that the conditions, the plan, will ensure safe and effective policing. I really think that needs to take place before a vote,” Farnworth told Locke.

“Absolutely Mike, I hear you on that, but the problem is it can’t be before the vote,” responded Locke.

Farnworth’s deputy minister, Doug Scott, had stressed during the meeting the province’s concern was that if there was a return to the RCMP it could result in a collapse of the SPS rapidly and potentially very completely.

“It would cause a crisis, frankly, in policing in Surrey that would have to be backstopped by moving resources in, throughout the province, at a really challenging time, including sending resources outside the province to fight forest fires,” said Scott.

Just a month later, the province concluded the city had failed to meet the requirements to prevent an exodus of SPS officers, or to staff up the Surrey RCMP without pulling RCMP officers from other communities. At the time, the province noted the RCMP continued to experience a critical vacancy problem in B.C. and across Canada.

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Last week, Postmedia reported the RCMP in B.C. continues to have a 20-per-cent vacancy rate because of more than 600 unfilled positions and nearly 1,000 officers are on leave.

The tone of the meeting last year was civil, with both Farnworth and Locke acknowledging it was a difficult issue for both of them.

B.C. Minister for Public Safety Mike Farnworth. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104055A

Farnworth told Locke the issue was one of the most challenging he had to deal with. And he told her he had no personal issue with her. “I don’t want you to think that I do. I just want to make that clear,” he said.

Locke said she knew the public wanted them to find a resolution, noting she had her fill of the issue. “I’m sure you have had your fill. I know Mr. (Premier David) Eby has had more than his fill,” she told Farnworth.

The mayor had spoken to Eby earlier that day.

Locke also told Farnworth she had no confidence in the SPS or its police board, telling the minister she believed the board should be replaced with an administrator.

The bitter Surrey police dispute is in its 18th month.

Locke and her majority council have been fighting since their election in the fall of 2022 to keep the RCMP, largely because the force is less expensive.

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Under former mayor Doug McCallum, a 2019 transition plan argued Surrey was the largest city in Canada without its own municipal force, which would bring oversight to the local level, rather than Ottawa, and be more responsive to changing conditions and demands, and representative of the community.

The increased cost of the SPS over the RCMP has been estimated by the province at up to $30 million a year, or about 15 per cent more than the RCMP.

Locke and her majority council rejected a $250-million offer from the province to help aid the transition to a new municipal force to replace the RCMP. Shortly after that, the B.C. NDP government set a date of Nov. 29 for the takeover of policing in Surrey and said part of the offered money, $150 million, would be used to move the transition ahead.

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Excerpts from the Locke-Farnworth recording

Here are edited excerpts from a July 15, 2023, phone conversation between B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke just hours before her council voted a second time to halt a transition to a municipal police force and stick with the RCMP.

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Locke: I wanted to have a chat with you. I’m sure you’ve heard by now because it seems like it’s out there in the media quite a bit. We have a special council meeting today at 2 o’clock to deal with the report that we’ve received from our staff.

It’s a response to the decision that we have to make on the conditions, and I wanted to just to let you know ahead of time. I expect, I fully expect actually, that council are going to reaffirm their decision to keep the RCMP and they will acknowledge the conditions, of course. And we know how we are going to deal with that. That’s all in the report.

So, I wanted to let you know that ahead of time. The meeting is at 2 o’clock today. So probably the decision will be made, and we’ll be ready to move on shortly thereafter.

Of course, because the report is all — a report that was done because of NDAs signed — there won’t be a lot that we will or can release. But I wanted to let you know that.

As I said, I expect that council will reaffirm the decision. And so, with that, I’m reaching out to you now to let you know and hope that we can have that co-operation because I’d really like to see this get done in an effective, efficient and fulsome way, working together to move forward.

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Farnworth: Thanks for that and I appreciate that. Look, I know this has not been an easy issue. This has been a difficult issue for both of us. It’s hard for me as well.

I did speak with the premier about your call this morning and I just want to also make one point. I have no personal issue with you on this issue. So, I don’t want you to think that I do. So, I just want to make that clear.

Here’s my challenge and my concern. I know you got the job being the mayor of Surrey and that your role is to look after Surrey and that’s what you’re doing.

I’ve got a statutory obligation under the Police Act and I can’t move away from that. And you know my role is to ensure safe and effective policing in the entire province, including Surrey, that’s my responsibility.

That’s not the same as yours and I totally respect your position and where you’re coming from. And the challenge for me is I got to be able to understand and know that there are clear and concrete plans from the city in terms of wanting to go back.

And so that’s why I’ve communicated in writing, you know, to make clear that the government’s position is on the record and people understand what it is.

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I know our staff have been working together as recently as last week and that appears to have changed a bit and I know you’re you wanting to — not wanting — you are having that vote today.

And my concern is around the issue of exactly what the plan is that the city is voting on. Not just a high level, ‘Yes we can meet the conditions,; but how?

That’s the challenge that I’ve got, that’s my responsibility, and so my ask would be, look, if the city wants to work with us and the premier and government, I’m asking that you don’t hold a vote today until we can at least agree at a staff level on what the details that council will be voting for because otherwise, you know, that causes a problem for me and I will have to make sure that my statutory responsibility is meant for safe and an effective policing.

Locke: Mike, our staff, city staff, and your staff are working together — and they have been working together.

… I want to just say this, I mean, the province has been saying, you have been saying in media, that you want us to make the decision and been pushing and we’ve been doing our due diligence … Our staff have been working both with the Surrey Police Service and the RCMP to ensure that all of those pieces are put in place and put in place in a way that makes sense. I know that they have been communicating that with your staff.

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… We’re looking at a report that our staff, I think, have worked through to a great degree with RCMP, Surrey Police Service and your staff, and moving forward. And then after that it’ll be up to our staff and your staff to fulfil the end goal.

In terms of the RCMP and the SPS, I am concerned about the SPS. We’ve already seen insubordination by them just last Monday and that was outrageous to me that they would do that, but they did.

But, you know, the RCMP have assured us in writing that they will be there and stand up for Surrey and do the work we have to do. I guess from my perspective I can’t not hold the vote when I don’t see the percentage of that, when the idea is to get this vote done. I mean hold it for what? We have to get on with it and I think the public wants us to get on with it — I don’t think it, I know it.

Certainly, I’ve had my fill and I’m sure you’ve had your fill, I know that Mr. Eby has had more than his fill. So, I don’t see the percentage of us postponing anything. I’m not considering that.

But I do want to assure you that I don’t want to make this a spectacle anymore. I have stayed out of the media very, very purposely, but right now as of today it is a media frenzy at Surrey.

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So I’m going to have to come out and say something today. After the meeting, I will. It would be a full-court press, that’s for sure, but I will have to say something.

Mayor Locke introduces then-Surrey city manager Vincent Lalonde who is also participating on the call.

Lalonde: … What we’ve done and presented to council is not a detailed analysis of everything, because that has to be worked out together, but rather the feasibility analysis of your comments and your conditions and we’ve done it for both sides, so you know, so it’s a neutral report.

… I don’t think it’s Earth shattering. Council already took this position in November so, really, they’re just reconfirming what they’ve already said a long time ago. To me, I think yourself and your ministry have been clear that you want this to be orderly. We agree with that.

Minister Farnworth introduces his deputy minister, Doug Scott, who is also on the call. Scott begins by saying provincial and city staff have worked collaboratively and then highlights a major disagreement.

Scott: … Where we’re divided is on the issue of whether the plan for meeting the conditions should be nailed down before or after a vote. And there’s some conditions where certainly it’s reasonable to be very flexible on that.

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On the conditions that are related to preventing a Surrey Police Service collapse, that’s where Vince and I diverge. Where our concern is, within the ministry, that the Surrey Police Service collapse could come rapidly and potentially even very completely, which would cause a crisis, frankly, in policing in Surrey that would have to be backstopped by moving resources in throughout the province at a really challenging time. Including a time where we’re sending resources outside the province even to fight forest fires.

… In our view, as soon as there’s a vote that is announced, if that vote is to go back to the RCMP, then in the absence of a plan that we can immediately communicate to Surrey Police members, it’s reasonable to expect based on how the union may respond. Mayor, you referenced the tension that’s happening, unfortunately at the front line, now there could be a mass exodus very, very quickly, in the terms of off-duty sick, or whatever form it takes.

Lalonde: … We share the same concern … where we may diverge is how to avoid that and who can do what. I think from a very practical sense, the city’s under the position that with SPS having an independent board and chief that reports to that board, as you can understand, I can do a phone call to plead for proper behaviour but I have no means to enforce proper behaviour.

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… We do believe the province has the means a little bit more than we do, for sure, but you also probably have limited means. But the province does control that board ultimately. So that’s one facet.

The second facet the city has more line of sight on and, if let’s say, that was unavoidable, it happened for whatever reason, the RCMP does have a detailed plan of how they would come to the aid of Surrey. And I don’t see any impediment about that set of plans being shared with you to make sure that you’re comfortable with that.

Locke: I just want to say one thing, the very fact that we’re having a conversation that police officers would leave their posts, so to speak, is the very reason that many of us in Surrey, a vast majority … don’t have confidence in Surrey Police Service.

… I don’t have confidence in that (police) board, I don’t have confidence in that board moving forward. I do think, minister, that it’s appropriate to put in a trustee. They will not be able to handle the move back. I know they won’t. I’ve watched them now for six months and I don’t think they have the capacity to be able to move this back …

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I find the fact that we’re even talking about this — police officers leaving their posts — is pretty sad.

Scott: … What I would say is that humans are humans and if you picked out an RCMP officer, of which I was one, as you know, and put them in the conditions that the Surrey Police members are currently operating … well, we’d all have exactly the same concern. People operate within the context in which they are placed.

Farnworth: … It’s one thing to say the RCMP have a plan, but I haven’t seen that, and to sort of suggest, or the idea, that I would get it and see it by two o’clock and that would be fine — that just won’t work.

We had all these issues in the works that was done by my ministry, from the city, from Surrey Police Service and the RCMP in terms of that first report that came back. And the issues around the RCMP and how they would deal with these situations was part and parcel of that. And the analysis was it’s not satisfactory. So now the RCMP are saying, ‘Oh yeah. No, no. We can we can do that.’

But I’ve not seen anything in writing and that’s the fundamental issue that I have to deal with. My statutory responsibility as minister is that there is safe and effective policing. And so, without knowing what that is, that’s a problem for me. That’s a problem for my role as solicitor general. I can’t make a decision, and I won’t make a decision, based on — and this is not a criticism of you — on anecdotal, or we know that they can do it. That’s a real problem,

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Locke: You will have it in writing. That’s certainly part of the report that we will have today.

… I just have to add, though, minister, we’re doing the vote at your behest, partially. We’re doing it to reaffirm what we said in December.

And I think you had said in the media about two weeks ago that I needed to get on with it, and the City needed to get on with the decision, and there was lots of inference, and I’m not saying from you, but from many, that we were taking too long.

We were taking too long because the staff here were doing an exemplary job of doing that report that we all have to respond to.

… There’s been not just media interest, they’re practically camped out here, and so I am going to have to say something. It will be minimal though, I might not even say the outcome of the vote.

… My expectation and my hope is that once this decision is made finally and again by the city that we will have co-operation and an ability to work together with the province to get all your needs addressed and certainly our needs addressed.

Farnworth: Yeah, thanks for that and I do appreciate your position and I totally understand and respect where you’re coming from.

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And I just want to repeat that you know my role, my statutory obligation under the Police Act, is different than yours. And I really do need to see a clear, concrete plan from the city.

And if we want to work together, I’ll ask again, that you don’t hold the vote until my staff and your staff are able to agree on the details of what it is you’re voting on. That’s my ask because that’s my role as solicitor general to make sure that I meet my statutory responsibility for safe and effective policing. And as I said, I know this is not easy for either of us.

Locke: With all due respect, I can tell you that we in Surrey never had the due diligence done for the SPS from the beginning. So, there is no guarantee moving forward the SPS is going to have anything more than what we’ve seen of late and that’s a bit of an unfortunate situation. …

I’m sorry, Mike, I don’t know how else to do this, we will be going forward with the vote. Now, of course, we want to work with you. We want to work with your ministry, we want to work with all ministries in the provincial government because that’s what we do as local government.

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But stopping a vote and asking us to ensure that you approve of what the city council is dealing with is extraordinary, that isn‘t something that I think I could ever, ever guarantee.

… It is as critical to us that we maintain public safety in the city of Surrey, but right now I can tell you, that this is becoming a constant nightmare, and it is taking too long … the challenges right now … we have to finalize this. Public is just done, they’re so done, with this conversation, and so is the media.

And it is becoming a massive challenge.

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