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Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth said that the goal of Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, seen here, to have the new force in operation by April, 2021, is 'ambitious.'

Ian Bailey/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

The British Columbia government has given Surrey permission to create a police board and take a number of other steps as it works to create a municipal force to replace the RCMP.

The approval marks a major step in Surrey’s push to ditch the RCMP in the largest Canadian city still policed by the Mounties.

Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth said Thursday the province has been reassured that Surrey is ready to move through a set of complex stages, starting with the creation of a police board, based on the 450-page report his ministry got from a transition committee last month.

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The report has not been released by the ministry, but the minister said it has 11 major chapters outlining what Surrey needs to do as it shifts to a new policing model.

But, like Wally Oppal, the former judge who chaired the transition committee that produced the report, Mr. Farnworth said that Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum’s goal of having the new force in operation by April, 2021, is “ambitious.”

“The key priority is going to be public safety and ultimately that is going to determine the timeline,” the minister said.

Mr. McCallum was jubilant about the news, calling Thursday “Day 1 of our Surrey police department.”

The mayor, who has been critical of the RCMP for decades, had campaigned in 2018 with a key goal of shifting to a municipal force, saying that would give council more local control and would result in having more police officers embedded permanently in the community instead of being shifted around the country.

Mr. McCallum praised Premier John Horgan and Mr. Farnworth for their leadership and their prompt action in getting to this point in only 16 months since his newly elected council issued a two-year notice to the RCMP that it was ending their contract.

But the decision provoked dismay from those who feel the new Surrey council, under Mr. McCallum, rushed into the process and ignored many public concerns.

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“The key aspects of the transition plan, like costs, labour, training, public consultation, have not been considered,” said Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman. The businesses in her organization are concerned about the significant new expenses – which will be sure to mean tax increases – likely to occur, she said.

When Mr. Oppal spoke to the board Wednesday, he acknowledged that municipal police forces generally cost more because the city doesn’t get the 10-per-cent subsidy the federal government provides for RCMP forces and because the RCMP haven’t been unionized, which meant lower costs in the past. That last is likely to change.

Surrey’s own planners have estimated that the new municipal police force will cost $20-million more in 2021, boosting the bill to $192-million, more than the RCMP budget for 2020. That would provide for 805 officers, less than the authorized number currently.

The head of the Surrey RCMP detachment also expressed regret about the decision.

“We respect that every municipality has the right to choose what type of police force they want for their city. But that is not to say this is not difficult for us,” said assistant commissioner Brian Edwards in a statement. “Given the nature of the work we do in the community, we are heavily invested in Surrey and its residents. This situation is discouraging for our members who enjoy policing this community.”

Mr. Farnworth stressed in his media conference that the province doesn’t have the right to dictate what policing model Surrey should use and it’s not up to his ministry to figure out which public groups to listen to.

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“Whenever an issue like this emerges, there are strong views on each side.”

The province has to go along with what the elected majority in local government says.

“The type of contract is their decision and the City of Surrey’s democratically elected council has made that decision.”

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