Dianne Watts won't seek re-election as mayor of Surrey, but she could remain an influential figure
Whenever a big-city mayor enters his or her third term of office, there's a risk of estrangement with some members of council.
It happened to Philip Owen in Vancouver before the 2002 election. It happened to Doug McCallum in Surrey during his third term before the 2005 election.
And over the past couple of years, McCallum's successor, Dianne Watts, has also come in conflict with members of her council.
But many were still taken aback when yesterday when Watts announced that she will not seek reelection this November.
It came at the ribbon-cutting for the new $97-million Surrey City Hall.
"I feel that I have completed this chapter in my life and it's time to pass the torch," Watts said. "Therefore, I will not be seeking re-election in the fall, and this opening of this new city hall, the community plaza, signifies a new chapter for this city."
Watts led her Surrey First party to a resounding victory in the 2011 election. She won the mayoral race by a monumental margin, capturing 81 percent of the votes. She also helped every council candidate on her slate get elected.
The magnitude of her victory made her appear unassailable. However, cracks in party unity became apparent in her third term, just as they did during the third terms of Owen and McCallum.
One of the biggest rifts surfaced during a January 2013 vote over a proposed $110-million Gateway casino, theatre, and convention centre at 12 Avenue and 168 Street in South Surrey.
Councillors Barinder Rasode, Linda Hepner, Barbara Steele, and Tom Gill voted in favour of the project, which would have included 600 slot machines and 25 gaming tables.
Watts cast the deciding vote against.
According to the B.C. Lottery Corporation, the project would have generated nearly $75 million in gambing revenues per year, with $3.9 million flowing back to the city on an annual basis.
Watts had previously voted in favour of rezoning the site after an application from a company associated with high-profile Surrey developer Bob Cheema.
Subsequently, Gateway Casinos became the proponent and donated more than $16,000 to Surrey First before the 2011 election.
Opposition to the proposed casino was most intense in South Surrey, leading Watts to vote it down.
That sparked angry reactions from the minister responsible for gambling, Rich Coleman, and the then-CEO of the B.C. Lottery Corporation, Michael Graydon.
One of the councillors who voted in favour, Gill, pointed out that Surrey residents spend $200 million a year on gambling, but only $40 million flows back into the city.
But voting against the casino in South Surrey has boosted Watts's brand with antigambling Christians. And there are many of them in that part of the region.
It's enabled Watts to set herself up to become a popular Conservative candidate in South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale in the next federal election, should she decide that this is what she wants to do. The next election is expected in 2015.
It's one of the safest Conservative seats in the province, and it will soon be vacated by the incumbent, Russ Hiebert, after an expense-account scandal in 2011.
As mayor, Watts has tried to concentrate major public investments, including the new city hall, in Surrey Centre to create a downtown. In the past, Surrey was notorious for its urban sprawl.
An SFU university campus and a new library, both designed by architect Bing Thom, have added some glamour to the area, which is beside the Surrey Central SkyTrain station. The city is also putting on more cultural events in nearby Holland Park, most notably last year's concert by Mumford & Sons.
The growing appeal of Surrey Centre has attracted hordes of major developers, including Concord Pacific and Bosa Properties, which have numerous projects on the books.
At the same time, Surrey has come under fire for having fewer police officers per population than other municipalities and for being slow to embrace harm-reduction measures for addicts. That has reinforced perceptions that more could be done to reduce crime in the city.
Last year, a record 25 murders occurred in Surrey, undermining Watts's efforts to rebrand the city.
On the upside, the arts and cultural life has been undergoing a renaissance, thanks in part to the programming at the Surrey Arts Centre.
The city is evolving and bigger changes will come if Surrey council persuades TransLink and senior levels of government to support a Portland-style street-level light rail connecting Surrey Centre with Guildford, Newton, and Langley City.
The council led by Watts played a key role in promoting this $2.18-billion plan over the objections of those who want a SkyTrain extension.
If she's elected to Parliament and if Harper remains prime minister after 2015, the dream of street-level light rail just might become a reality.
Don't count out Watts yet.
She could continue to remain the pivotal figure in Surrey politics for many years to come, even if she's no longer in the mayor's chair.