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Slot machines at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009. John Lehmann/Globe and Mail (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Slot machines at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009. John Lehmann/Globe and Mail (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

MUNICIPAL POLITICS

Casino rift shows weakness in Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts’ grip on power Add to ...

The repercussions continue to spread from a divisive vote among Surrey councillors to reject a casino after council spent two years encouraging an application there.

The four Surrey councillors who voted in favour of the casino only to see the deciding vote from Mayor Dianne Watts defeat it 5-4 at 2 a.m. last Saturday, say the mayor never expressed any serious concerns about it in the previous months.

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And they say Ms. Watts’s Surrey First party, which currently includes everyone on council, needs to talk about whether its members have common goals any more.

“We ran on over-riding principles. One was the economic well-being of the city. We now have to go back and reassess what our vision is as a group,” said Councillor Barinder Rasode.

In the meantime, Ms. Watts has issued an open letter saying the CEO of B.C. Lottery Corporation has “crossed the line” by criticizing her. Michael Graydon said publicly that he was disappointed that Ms. Watts is now saying she had concerns about the project months ago and that she should have been more transparent about them.

And Energy Minister Rich Coleman, who responded immediately after the decision by saying he had lost confidence in Surrey council and its ability to make a decision, issued a conciliatory news release late Thursday. In it, he said he appreciated the “time and thoughtfulness” council and the community took in examining the application.

But now four councillors – Ms. Rasode, Barbara Steele, Linda Hepner and Tom Gill – say they believed that the mayor, like them, thought the casino was in the best interests of the community. They said they were surprised when she voted no in the end.

At least one of them sees the mayor’s vote as her choice to take an easier path.

“When politicians are tasked to make responsible decisions for the community, it’s not about being popular,” said Ms. Rasode.

In a statement given to The Globe and Mail, the supporters noted the proposal was supposed to include a hotel and convention centre worth $110-million, another $130-million in tax and casino revenues directly to the city, and many other benefits.

Ms. Rasode said the province had also indicated that some of its share of the casino revenues could be used to help fund a homeless shelter and an autism centre.

The development was also in a place that the city itself had designated as a good location for the three casinos it had decided 10 years ago it would be willing to permit.

All of the four casino licence supporters said in interviews that Ms. Watts had let them know two years ago that Gateway Casinos was coming to city hall with the application and she wanted to know if any of them had any issues with it.

It was clear from the beginning that Councillor Marvin Hunt was opposed, but no one else was as firmly decided. B.C. Lottery Corporation and Gateway representatives were invited to meet with not just staff, but councillors, a number of times. Typically, only city staff deal with development applications.

But the mayor has made a name for herself in the Lower Mainland by reaching out personally to businesses and developers to encourage them to come to Surrey.

The four councillors said there were several “shirt-sleeve sessions,” advertised publicly, where lottery corporation officials and council met to refine the proposal.

“We negotiated all together,” said Ms. Hepner. “We kept bringing them back to the table and asking for more.”

Everyone knew there would be substantial opposition when the public hearing took place, but the sense among councillors was that most of their colleagues, and the mayor, were willing to make a decision they thought would benefit Surrey as a whole.

Various councillors asked for different improvements, including a bigger theatre, a more expensive project overall, and a high-quality hotel.

Ms. Hepner says now she thinks that unusual process was wrong because it gave the applicants such strong signals that the casino licence would be approved.

Ms. Steele said the mayor appeared to be positive all the way.

“I never heard her express doubt in the project at any time.”

Mr. Gill said what concerns him the most is that Surrey residents spend $200-million a year on gambling, with only $40-million of that staying in the city through other gaming facilities already there.

“We compete against other municipalities,” he said.

That money is now going to continue to flow out of the city, he said.

If the issue shows nothing else, said councillors, it’s that gambling is an issue that fractures councils.

Vancouver’s left-wing council, COPE, split over approving slots at Hastings Park and a casino near BC Place during its 2002-2005 term.

The Surrey council had an equally divided vote four years ago over whether to allow slots at a Newton community gaming facility.

It was 5-4. Several agreed with opponents who said that Newton, a low-income community with more than its share of social problems, should not also be saddled with gambling. Ms. Rasode, Mr. Hunt and two other councillors were opposed. Others were persuaded by the 4,000-name petition supporting it, along with those who said it helped raise money for community groups.

Ms. Watts cast a deciding vote to approve the slots.

 

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