City of Surrey lawyer says political sign bylaw challengers creating ‘manufactured dispute’

Click to play video: 'Surrey residents challenge city political sign bylaw in court' Surrey residents challenge city political sign bylaw in court
A group of Surrey residents are taking the city to court. Members of Keep the RCMP in Surrey are challenging a city bylaw that restricts the ability to display political signs on private property. Grace Ke reports – Apr 26, 2022

A lawyer for the City of Surrey says a group of residents have created “manufactured dispute” by challenging the constitutionality of the municipality’s recent political sign bylaw amendments.

Six members of the grassroots group ‘Keep the RCMP in Surrey’ launched a court petition seeking to overturn the bylaw changes, which they allege are a violation of their freedom of expression rights.

In B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, attorney Matthew Voell said the petitioners have interpreted the city’s changes “in a self-serving way” to create a basis for the constitutionality challenge.

He declined to speak with Global News while the matter is before the courts.

Read more: Surrey bylaw changes restricting political signage challenged in B.C. court

In October, Surrey’s council 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 initiative passed by a narrow margin, with all those in favour part of Mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition.

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Under the new rules, residents can post political signs on their property after a writ drop, or as soon as 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.

Click to play video: 'Group seeks to overturn ban on political signs in Surrey' Group seeks to overturn ban on political signs in Surrey
Group seeks to overturn ban on political signs in Surrey – Apr 26, 2022

Members of the Keep the RCMP Surrey group have regularly posted signs on their lawns opposing Surrey’s planned transition from the Mounties to a new municipal police service.

“Initially the signs were removed without authority, we say, and in relation to the amendments of the bylaw, our interpretation is that they expand the definition of political issues in a way that captures Keep the RCMP in Surrey signs,” said Farris LLP partner Kevin Smith, the petitioners’ lawyer, in an interview.

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“We’ll be arguing forcefully in reply that the city’s got it wrong on this one.”

Read more: Pro-RCMP group angry after Surrey city council votes to amend political signage bylaw

In court, Voell argued that the city’s amendments increase opportunities to post political signs; interested residents must simply apply for a permit to do so outside a voting event, in order to ensure there is no prohibition.

Voell said city staff have not adopted or enforced the amendments as interpreted by the petitioners and “there is no evidence of such an interpretation.” He further dismissed allegations that McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition have suppressed political opposition as a “boogeyman argument.”

“Staff have identified opportunities … to enhance the provisions of the sign bylaw related to political signs,” he said. “This was a staff-driven recommendation.”

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Surrey council to debate pause in ethics complaints during the civic election – Apr 11, 2022

Smith told Global News the “chronology” of the municipality’s actions speak for themselves.

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In September last year, seven members of Keep the RCMP in Surrey were banned from attending city council meetings — a move to “protect the democratic process,” McCallum said, as they were accused of being disruptive. 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, and filed a separate petition to overturn October’s political sign bylaw amendments. Once that happened, Surrey’s council discontinued its petition for an injunction and withdrew its resolution.

Hearings for the political signage case began on Tuesday, and have been adjourned to May 18.

— With files from Grace Ke

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