Surrey taxpayers foot the bill after mayor stumbles into mischief charge

When Vancouverites cry into their craft beer about the state of civic leadership, they can always find solace in contemplation of the shambles of Surrey.

Mayor Doug McCallum has, almost since the day of his political reprise in 2018, delivered the kind of erratic and incoherent governance associated with elementary school student councils. He has floated and trotted out and even flown ideas that strike the second-largest British Columbia city as bizarre, troubled and the stuff of madness. (His plan for canals and gondolas comes to mind.) He banned opponents from chambers and rescinded the Indigenous land acknowledgement at meetings, indicative of his acceptance. He intends to run again next October, and most certainly the election will be a referendum on him.

Apart from undoing the region’s carefully negotiated rapid transit plan on what seemed to be a whim, McCallum’s signature accomplishment has been to replace the city’s RCMP detachment with a local force.

The debatable virtue in this has divided the city, left many experts with open sores from scratching their heads, and is at the root of the mayor’s really big problem of the moment – a criminal charge.

The mayor alleges he was confronted in September by a member of the Keep The RCMP In Surrey contingent rustling up signatures for a petition for the cause while he was shopping at Save-On Foods and that when he walked away he was nipped by a car that ran over his foot.

Much limping ensued eventually, but not until after McCallum did the groceries and spent a chunk of the day before complaining to, yes, the RCMP.

The froth on this was considerable. Usually when we run down public officials in Canada, it’s a verbal or written thing. McCallum told his story and was given the benefit of the doubt by media. After all, it’s one thing to condemn the mayor for how he thinks on his feet, but another matter entirely to doubt the state of their health.

Alas, the emergence of video during McCallum’s 77 years may have proven a wrinkle in his assertions. There were cameras near the scene of the alleged crime upon him, and they are likely part of the prosecution of the alleged crime by him.

McCallum was charged with one count of public mischief, which relates to making false statements to, yes again, those same police officers he wishes to locally replace. It's kind of a foot-in-mouth issue (pun intentional).

Now, one of the conveniences of public office is the indemnification that comes when certain legal action is taken against an elected official. In Surrey’s case, it is a bylaw and you’re given this legal insulation if the episode happened on city business.

The curious thing is, of course, that no one really brought this action against McCallum except McCallum himself. The more curious thing is to ask what kind of city business takes place at the supermarket. Rather than foot (pun again intentional) the bill himself for his story, the taxpayers of the city will have to pay to defend him from something he started. The interpretation of the bylaw has been generously granted the mayor who, it might be noted, is the incoming chair of the new city force’s Police Board. The mayor’s insulation comes in the form of high-calibre lawyer Richard Peck, part of the recent Meng Wanzhou defence team and no shrinking violet.

Noticeably aggrieved, no surprise, are his political rivals, who have awaited an opportunity like this for three years but are to date thwarted in their calls for him to step aside (another pun intended) while the court proceeds. Noticeably quiet, meanwhile, is McCallum, who is staying put.

Should he resign? No.

Should he be indemnified? Not in this case. Bylaw notwithstanding, it’s just not a good look. If he dodges the charge, he should at least refund the taxpayers for his bills.

Should he find a convenient holiday for a couple of months to let this play out in the courts? That would be a great idea at a certain part of the election cycle, but not so now. McCallum must know that he needs in the coming weeks to be in the chair to keep the chair. He can ill-afford to walk away (pun again) at this critical time.

What we will get now is further rancor in the council chamber. McCallum seems to thrive on rivalry the way John McEnroe used to thrive on tantrums, so his foes had better get their elbows up. You may disagree with McCallum, but few fight for the future of the city – even if it’s his vision and not others’ – with his conviction, er, passion (sorry, ran out of puns).

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.