Surrey voters will determine GVRD's future

The era of sprawl-friendly and car-friendly politicians running Greater Vancouver through a slow-motion replay of everything that ruined Los Angeles may soon be over.

But that great hope doesn't much depend on how Vancouverites vote on November 19. What matters is what happens in Surrey. For a decade, Surrey politicians have led a pro-sprawl axis that has wielded enormous power on the Greater Vancouver Regional District and TransLink boards.

With the help of B.C.'s developer-friendly provincial government, and in league with a handful of like-minded suburban politicians, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Surrey councillor and former Social Crediter Marvin Hunt have managed to stymie progressive regional planning and rational transit development. (The RAV line proceeded, for instance, after a 57-56 GVRD vote.)

Surrey has four directors and 18 votes on the GVRD board, second only to Vancouver's six directors and 28 votes. By comparison, New Westminster has three votes and Pitt Meadows has only one. Hunt is the GVRD's chairman. McCallum chairs the TransLink board.

But for the first time in four elections, McCallum and his Surrey Electors Team are facing a serious challenge. An overthrow of McCallum's crowd may open the doors to a radical restructuring of the GVRD.

That's the sort of thing that veteran Surrey Coun. Bob Bose has in mind, anyway.

Bose is the cerebral elder statesman with the Surrey Civic Coalition, which is fielding a slate of "smart growth" candidates against McCallum's SET councillors and is also backing independent mayoral candidate Dianne Watts.

Bose, a former Surrey mayor and the driving force behind the GVRD's 1975 Livable Region Plan-which came two decades before implementation of the district's Livable Region Strategic Plan-isn't just hoping that planning-friendly politicians will wrest control of the GVRD from McCallum's faction. He wants the GVRD to become an effective and democratically accountable regional government.

"The GVRD has got nothing to do with encouraging debate anymore," Bose said during a recent conversation. "It's got nothing to do with fostering any kind of intellectual enterprise. It's all about how quickly you can get through the agenda and get out of there."

The main problem is the GVRD's autocratic and unaccountable structure, Bose said. The GVRD's directors are appointed and not directly elected. "It means there's no reason for real issues to be debated, and we don't have the engagement of the public," he said.

For Surrey, what Bose would like to see is a "two-tier" model of governance, allowing voters to elect a combination of city councillors, from wards that replicate the seven provincial ridings in Surrey and three at-large councillors, along with the mayor (bringing council membership to 11 from 9). Voters would also be entitled to specifically choose Surrey's GVRD directors among the candidates.

Among other things, a reconstituted, directly accountable regional government wouldn't be prone to the manipulations of "the Doug McCallums of this world, playing hot-button politics" with complex problems such as the pressing need to reduce reliance on the private automobile throughout the region, Bose said.

Bose is confident that turfing McCallum and his SET party is at least within reach. Among Surrey voters, McCallum has become widely regarded as a bully and backroom manipu--lator who is far too friendly with big developers: of 560 development projects that were significant enough to require either rezoning or an amendment to Surrey's official community plan over the past three years, McCallum ended up voting for all but four of them.

Watts, a former McCallum ally, is focusing on more careful growth-planning, conserving green space, bringing "consultation and transparency" to city politics, and "ending conflict and confrontation at city hall". McCallum, meanwhile, says he's running on his track record. That's fine by his opponents, who point out that he's done a perfectly good job tarnishing his own credibility in recent years. He has harassed the Surrey RCMP's public-affairs staff for reporting honestly on criminal activity in Surrey, particularly for having noted that Surrey was Canada's car-theft epicentre. He has also presided over a willy-nilly sort of development that has resulted in the loss of 50,000 trees in Surrey over the past five years.

McCallum has also made it clear that he wants Surrey to take over control of Barnston Island-a pastoral floodplain island in the Fraser River between Surrey and Pitt Meadows-and he has vowed to oppose any effort by the GVRD to "interfere" with his plans to have the entire island, which is larger than Stanley Park, removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Meanwhile, there are already two million people living in Greater Vancouver.

Vancouver's population is nearing 600,000, and Surrey's population is nearing 400,000. But human population growth isn't the main problem Greater Vancouver is facing, Bose insists. There's lots of room for people. And there's lots of room for green space, farmland, and parks.

Most people wouldn't know it, Bose said, but "you could fit all of downtown Vancouver into the Whalley town centre and there'd still be room left over." But because you can drive quickly through Whalley, it seems small. Downtown Vancouver, with its clogged streets and its mass of "old growth" high-rises, leaves a skewed sense of its real size.

"We don't understand scale properly," Bose said. "Our sense of scale comes from sitting in the front seat of a car."