Grassroots group's lawyer challenges Surrey's claim that amended bylaw does not ban political signs

·3 min read
Ivan Scott of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey group outside City Hall in July 2019, gathering signatures for a petition to save the RCMP in the city. Members of the organization filed a petition in December 2021 challenging the city's amendments to the political signs bylaw. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Ivan Scott of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey group outside City Hall in July 2019, gathering signatures for a petition to save the RCMP in the city. Members of the organization filed a petition in December 2021 challenging the city's amendments to the political signs bylaw. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Five months after members of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey grassroots group filed a B.C. Supreme Court petition calling for changes to the city's amended political signs bylaw, the hearings have concluded with a judgment reserved for a later date.

Surrey city council voted in October 2021 to amend the sign bylaw, forbidding any display of political signs on private or public property until an election, referendum or plebiscite has officially been called.

The amendments also expanded the definition of 'political signs' to include signs that support a candidate or party, or support or disprove of a politician, political party or political issue.

The vote to amend the bylaw came as signs saying "Keep the RCMP in Surrey" graced many lawns in the city. Police service in Surrey has been transitioning from the Surrey RCMP to the municipal police force, the Surrey Police Service (SPS).

In December 2021, six members of the grassroots organization filed a petition in the B.C. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the city's amendments.

Amendments 'unconstitutional': lawyer

Kevin Smith, the lawyer representing the six plaintiffs, argued the city's amendments to the political signs bylaw is an "unconstitutional infringement," prohibiting freedom of expression under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Smith presented in court email exchanges between a Surrey resident, councillor Laurie Guerra, and the city's general manager of corporate services, Rob Costanzo.

Smith said that in the emails, which he received under the Freedom of Information Act, Costanzo repeatedly tells the resident that there is a complete ban on any kind of political signs under the amended bylaw.

Janella Hamilton/CBC News
Janella Hamilton/CBC News

Matthew Voell, the lawyer representing the City of Surrey, argued this was never the case and that Smith was misinterpreting the intent of the emails.

He said the intent of Costanzo's replies is to inform the resident that there is no ban on putting up the signs, but that there is a permit process in place, although Voell did not elaborate on the permit.

"It's important to understand what's being addressed here and in the subsequent events," Voell said.

He said there was no improper intent behind the political signs bylaw amendments.

He said the constitutional challenge was brought forward for "political purposes," and that the petition is a "manufactured dispute."

Smith argued that it was clear that no permits for political signs could be obtained. "The city has never told anyone that they can go away and just pay their money and get a permit," he said.

Smith said the language of the bylaw itself is confusing and that the interpretation the city is trying to present — the fact that there is no ban — does not exist.

"No one, not even the translators, knows what this bylaw says. There is considerable confusion," said Smith.

Justice Nigel Kent, the judge presiding over the hearings, said the emails from Costanzo contain no wording to support Voell's argument.

"You cannot read a 'no' in this letter," said Kent.

After hearing both sides, Kent said he will reserve the judgment for a later date.

"I have no clue when I'll get a judgment. But I will," he said.

CBC British Columbia has launched a Surrey bureau to help tell your stories with reporter Kiran Singh. Story ideas and tips can be sent to kiran.singh@cbc.ca.

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