Their petition, heard in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday, alleges the changes passed by Surrey councillors last October violate their charter-protected right to freedom of expression.
The controversial amendments expanded the municipality’s definition of political signage to include citizens’ initiatives and set a strict timeframe for when such signs can be posted.
“The effect of those amendments, my clients say, was to mean there are particular issues that aren’t the subject of a specific election, which can never be the subject of political signs,” said Kevin Smith, a partner at Farris LLP and the group’s lawyer. “Those signs are banned entirely.”
On Oct. 18, Surrey Council approved the bylaw amendments by a narrow margin of five votes to four. All councillors outside of Mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition voted against it.
With the changes, residents can post political signage after a federal or provincial election period, or the nomination period for local government and school district elections or byelections has begun. Citizens may also post signs from the time plebiscites or referenda are established.
Signs regarding recall or initiative petitions can be posted when the petition application is approved by the BC Elections officer. All signs must be removed within two weeks of a vote.
Matthew Voell, the lawyer representing the City of Surrey, declined to comment on this story while the matter is before the courts. In court, he said Surrey is not banning political signs and suggested there is a disagreement in the interpretation of the amendments.
Ivan Scott, one of six members of the ‘Keep the RCMP in Surrey’ group who filed the petition, said they “drew a line in the sand” in court on Tuesday.
“It’s important because there’s somebody down there in Surrey who has taken democracy to another low level and we want to bring it back up,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.
“I think we’ve got a really good case here, we’ve got support from everywhere here in Surrey.”
For many months, members of Keep the RCMP in Surrey posted signs opposing the city’s transition from the Mounties to a new municipal police force on their lawns.
Seven members of the group, including Scott, were banned in September 2021 from attending city council meetings — a move to “protect the democratic process,” McCallum said at the time. The council then sought a court injunction to keep them from showing up.
Six of the seven banned residents responded with a petition seeking to overturn the resolution banning them. They also filed a separate petition seeking to overturn October’s bylaw amendments on political signage.
Surrey’s council has discontinued its court petition for an injunction and withdrawn its resolution banning the residents. Hearings for the political signage case will continue on April 27.
— With files from Global News’ Toby Kerr, Janet Brown and Jon Azpiri