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Les Leyne: Surrey policing debacle set to eat up more time and money

They’ll be teaching this horror story in public administration schools for years to come
Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke speaks during a news conference about the city’s municipal police force transition, in Surrey in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Normally there would not be much reason for Vancouver Islanders to care about the political tire fire that is the Surrey policing debacle.

But it is going to consume a lot of the agenda over the remaining weeks of the legislature sitting. Now it looks like it could eat up a lot more provincial taxpayers’ money as well.

So it’s worth watching, if only as a lesson for everyone in B.C. on how not to go about re-organizing police departments. They’ll be teaching this horror story in public administration schools for years to come.

It rekindled memories of much the smaller-scale Greater Victoria police reorganization in the mind of Transportation Minister Rob Fleming.

During debate on a bill that is the NDP government’s latest attempt to put out the fire, ­Fleming recalled watching the Victoria-Esquimalt police merger 20 years ago.

He said the crisis in the formerly separate Esquimalt department that prompted the forced merger is still sealed and secret, but the province and civic leaders co-operated on a transition to a merged force. It could have led to a regional Greater Victoria force, but years of talks didn’t produce anything.

“As one officer whom I know personally described it, at the end of seven or eight years, they couldn’t agree on very much, including what kind of dog food to feed the canine units.”

Fleming said it was due to a lack of clarity, which is the same problem the bill rushed into the legislature this week is supposed to clear up.

The bill gives the province more authority to demand facts and figures from municipalities working on police changeovers, and stipulates that when there is a major change in policing, there is no turning back.

It also orders Surrey to finish the conversion to a municipal force and allows the government to cancel Surrey’s RCMP contract outright if need be.

It arose from the toxic standoff between Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth that developed months ago and is getting worse by the minute.

Locke campaigned against the move from RCMP to a municipal force orchestrated by a previous mayor and started work on reverting back to the RCMP after winning last year.

The reversal has turned into a disaster and Farnworth’s flailing attempts to force Surrey to go back to the original municipal police plan haven’t worked.

He put $150 million on the table last spring to entice Surrey into surrendering and carrying on with the municipal police model. It only seemed to make things worse, culminating in a lawsuit the city filed last week against the province.

Premier David Eby said it doesn’t have a chance and indicated there is even more money available.

Eby said: “The province has committed to Surrey that we will support them. We understand there are additional costs here. We will support them in that and I’m happy to have those discussions.”

The additional costs illustrate how shoddy the analytical work — largely kept secret — has been over the past several years. It’s worth noting that Farnworth originally approved Locke’s plan.

The province routinely pours money into specific communities hit by disasters. Now taxpayers are faced with covering the huge costs of one municipality’s political crisis.

“It will be so much more efficient, so much cheaper for everybody… if we’re able to do this quickly and efficiently,” Eby said.

Sounds convincing. Too bad he can’t make the argument to Locke in person. She stopped talking in any meaningful way with him or Farnworth months ago.

As of today, B.C. is one year away from a general election, if Eby sticks to his word not to call one earlier.

Surrey taxpayers got a 12.5 per cent tax hike this year and are looking at more huge hikes to come to pay for the dithering, under-estimating and arguing of the past four years. Crucially, they make up seven key ridings that are held by the NDP.

Try to picture the NDP government putting up $150 million and then millions more to get Opposition-held communities out of jams largely of their own making.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon wants the seats just as badly, and is wary of blasting Locke’s role. So he heaps blame for the mess on the NDP. He considers the legislation as it stands “not supportable.”

The attempted fix might or might not be unsupportable, but the whole story is ­unbelievable.

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