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The Globe and Mail

Surrey Mayor’s departure marks the end of an era

It is unknown whether the Surrey First party will survive Mayor Dianne Watts’s exit from civic politics.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The dominance of the Surrey First party is showing cracks, as Mayor Dianne Watts prepares to exit civic politics.

The initial fracture came two weeks ago, when one councillor left Surrey First – the first departure from a group that occupied every seat on council by 2011 – saying it had lost its sense of connection with the public. But with Ms. Watts's announcement on Saturday that she will not run again as mayor, the remaining Surrey First councillors are fighting to stave off uncertainty, putting out the message they're still together and saying they're going to announce a new mayoralty candidate as soon as possible.

"There is a little bit of a rumour mill out there," said Councillor Tom Gill, one of three from the party considering whether to run for the mayoralty position. The other two are Linda Hepner and Bruce Hayne. "Within the next week or two weeks, there is likely to be a decision."

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Mr. Hayne said Ms. Watts's departure will inevitably bring forward a lot of people who think there's now an opening.

"We don't want a vacuum. We'll choose the best person for the community and, whoever it is, we will rally behind."

Ms. Watts announced Saturday – at the grand opening of a new City Hall that she spearheaded as part of her effort to transform Surrey into a city with its own downtown, rather than just a bedroom suburb to Vancouver – that she wouldn't run again for mayor in November, ending nine years as mayor and 18 years on council.

"My heart, my integrity and my passion have been here for this city and for the people who live here," said Ms. Watts at the festivities, surrounded by red-jacketed Mounties, her councillors and several MLAs. "But as in every book, there comes a time to turn a page and to end a chapter. I feel I have completed this chapter in my life and it's time to pass on the torch.

She was widely viewed as having brought about an unusual spirit of collaboration on the previously fractious Surrey City Council, attracting both right-wing and left-wing councillors to join her at Surrey First.

"Dianne Watts brought all the factions together because she had a vision for what Surrey could do to put itself on the map," said Bob Ransford, a political adviser, campaign manager and development consultant in the Lower Mainland. "But my sense of Surrey First is that it's hers. Now you'll see people start to jockey for position."

And, he said, because Surrey is so dominated by real estate development, a lot of people withing that sector will be tempted to back competing candidates in an effort to influence the future council.

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Veteran Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard, who has seen many mayors come and go in B.C., also said that no one can assume that Surrey First "is the entity that survives."

It held together, he said, because Ms. Watts understood that successful mayors achieve what they do by pulling together a consensus on their councils.

The unity showed small cracks in the past year, when Surrey First – a party that consists of only its councillors and which holds no nomination meetings or policy sessions – councillors split five-four on a contentious casino vote, with the mayor on the no side.

Then, two weeks ago, a councillor who was publicly critical of the mayor's last-minute change of heart on the casino, Barinder Rasode, left Surrey First, saying that the party had lost its spirit of listening to people, was not paying enough attention to the city's crime problems and was making too many decisions in the mayor's office instead of in public.

There's wide speculation that Ms. Watts may run for the federal Conservatives in a recently vacated Surrey riding, but she refused to confirm that.

In the meantime, Ms. Rasode, who hopes to take her place as mayor, believes this election will be like the one that swept Watts to power in 2005 – an opportunity for people in Surrey to "reset the agenda" and bring in change rather than continuing with the status quo.

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Like Ms. Rasode, Ms. Watts quit the ruling Surrey Electors Team in 2005 after having been one of its councillors for nine years. She challenged the incumbent mayor, Doug McCallum, for his job and won, then spent the next two years slowly persuading SET councillors, along with more left-leaning candidates, to join her new Surrey First party.

She brought a radical new approach to a suburb that had largely resisted efforts to deal with social problems such as homelessness or immigration or do urban-style development. Instead, Ms. Watts pushed for Surrey to act and feel like a city.

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