Days before Surrey’s controversial casino vote, the minister responsible for gambling called some city councillors with a warning: If they voted no to this proposal, they could forget about a new casino anywhere in Surrey.
Councillor Bruce Hayne, who voted against the proposed $100-million casino resort in South Surrey, said Minister Rich Coleman’s call was unusual but clear: “He let me know in no uncertain terms that if we turned down the proposal, the province and (the B.C. Lottery Corp.) would not be looking at another site in Surrey.”
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says it was inappropriate for Coleman to call councillors just days ahead of a public hearing into the proposed casino and, in a scathing letter to BCLC Thursday, she also blasted CEO Michael Graydon for what she described as inflammatory comments following Surrey’s 5-4 decision to reject a gambling license for the project, proposed by Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Ltd.
Watts said the actions by both Graydon and Coleman have shown a disregard for public process. Coleman also blasted Surrey council for rejecting the proposed casino and said B.C. won’t waste any more time looking to place a casino in Surrey.
“Why even have a process and engage the public on a gaming license if your expectation is that it should go through regardless?” Watts said earlier this week.
The mayor acknowledged Thursday that she was one of at least three members of Surrey council who spoke to Coleman ahead of the controversial public hearing, which began on Jan. 14 and wrapped up early Saturday morning.
Watts said she didn’t believe that Coleman’s call was a lobbying effort but noted, “it’s inappropriate to contact council members with those kinds of statements. It’s not OK because we have to make sure our process is open and transparent.”
Councillor Tom Gill, who supported the casino application, said Coleman was returning a call he had made to find out if Surrey would be able to put the casino in another location if the residents didn’t want it. He supported the project, he said, because he didn’t want to lose the $3 million-plus in revenue from the project.
“The purpose of the call was to clarify BCLC’s intent in Surrey,” Gill said. “I was trying to determine what level of opportunities existed. It was quite clear it was South Surrey or nothing.”
Coleman was not available for an interview Thursday but said in an email the province’s policy is to never put a casino in an area that doesn’t want it and he respects Surrey’s decision.
“I am always open to discuss projects and answer questions for issues falling under my ministry, which is what I did in this case. That will not change,” the email states. “I respect Surrey council’s decision and want to personally thank them for taking the time to consider the opportunity.”
But NDP MLA Shane Simpson said Coleman should have had a staff member call Gill and the other councillors if his intent was to provide information.
“It just raises a whole bunch of questions,” he said. “Mr. Coleman has to answer more questions about what that was about and the nature of those calls. He should have known this is sensitive.
“If it’s political in any shape or form it was inappropriate for him to do that.”
Meanwhile, Watts questioned why – if Graydon expected the casino proposal to be fully supported – did BCLC bother going through a public consultation process that lasted 13 hours. Close to 200 people – 74 opposed and 112 in favour – signed up to speak at the hearing.
Watts said the statement by Graydon that “something transpired in the last few days and I don’t know what,” implies that she acted irresponsibly in making the decision.
“To state that he is ‘disappointed’ in my actions and ‘if she truthfully had issues,’ is crossing a line that a regulator should not cross,” Watts said, referring to statements Graydon made earlier this week.
“The letter I sent out is self-explanatory but it’s around the process … at the end of the day this isn’t about the Gateway project – they had a good project – it’s about the community rejecting it.”
Graydon was travelling and could not be reached for comment at press time, according to a BCLC spokesperson.
Watts said earlier this week she was also surprised that the B.C. Lottery Corp. had lobbied so hard for the project. She said she also “took note” when a BCLC spokesman wrapped up the hearings by speaking on behalf of the remaining 35 casino supporters before the council vote.
“There’s a fine line between a regulator and somebody championing a project,” Watts said. “They have to look at how they move forward in that.”
BCLC is responsible for conducting and managing commercial gambling in B.C., including working with private partners who operate casinos licensed by the province. B.C.’s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch regulates all gambling in British Columbia, including the operations of the BCLC.
The B.C. Lottery Corporation has said it will still push ahead with plans for a major casino south of the Fraser River and a new Edgewater Casino in Vancouver.