A lawsuit brought forward to the B.C. supreme court dismissed a lawsuit that requested a City of Surrey bylaw unconstitutional and reject it for appearing to be targeting supporters of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey campaign. The judge also ordered the city to amend the law to make it more clear.
In his ruling on Thursday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nigel P. Kent stated that recent amendments to the city’s bylaw governing political signs were “poorly drafted” and “clarification of ambiguity” is required.
Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition councillors voted in the changes last November with a 5-4 vote.
It was noted the definition of “Political Sign” was expanded, instead of just elections it also includes additional voting event while the definition was broadened to capture more than just voting event signage and now includes signs that express “support or disapproval” of a “political organization” or a “municipal, provincial or federal issue”.
Six members of an organization called Keep the RCMP in Surrey is opposed to the transition to a municipal police force.
They argued that the amended wording of the sign bylaw prohibited the use of any political signs outside of the designated campaign seasons, including the Keep the RCMP in Surrey signs.
They stated that this was a “classic example of infringement” of the freedom of expression right listed in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The petitioners requested that the court rule that the bylaw revisions were invalid and so had no legal force or effect.
Alternately, they requested that the court determine that the amendments were passed in bad faith and should be revoked as a result since they were intended to deliberately target Keep the RCMP in Surrey and its supporters.
“Despite expressions of confusion and concern from many sources, the City has not volunteered any amendments to clarify its stated intent,” wrote Kent.
The judges decision included a summary of the “political environment” in which Surrey City Council attempted to ban the six petitioners from meetings for “disorderly conduct.” in September last year.
In an effort to enforce the bylaw, the city requested an injunction from the court in October. However, after the listed individuals filed their response to that legal case, council decided to repeal it.
Early in September 2021, McCallum also confronted Keep the RCMP in Surrey supporters at a nearby grocery store, falsely suggesting that they were not permitted to be there.
Following the event, the mayor reported it to the police, alleging that a supporter of “Keep the RCMP in Surrey” ran over his foot.
Eventually, a mischief case against McCallum resulted from that claim. On October 31 of this year, he is set to go on trial.
Interpretation of the law
The city of Surrey claimed the bylaw amendments do not prohibit political signs while providing their interpretation of the bylaw.
The city argued that while several signs would be prohibited outside of campaign periods, a single sign is allowed at all times.
“According to the city, the proper interpretation of the bylaw is that the sign which is affixed to (petitioner Debra) Johnstone’s front gate is permissible and is exempt from any permit or inspection requirements, however any additional signs she wishes to install on her property would require a permit for any time periods outside the voting event times set out in (the bylaw),” Kent summarizes in his decision.
“While I accept the city’s statements that the intended effect of the 2021 amendments was and is as described above, the difficulty is that the language of those amendments has created an ambiguity, one that supports the petitioners’ position that any political signage on private property is effectively banned except during the voting events and time frames specified,” the judge added
The evidence regarding the political environment in Surrey at the time the 2021 Amendments were enacted is insufficient to support the petitioners’ inferences.
Kent agreed that had such procedural options been pursued, the circumstances could have provided fertile ground for cross-examination of City Councillors or other City representatives. There are, however, other rational conclusions that do not involve bad faith for both the motivation for and proper interpretation of the bylaw.
“In the circumstances, while I am holding the City to its word in terms of the interpretation of the bylaw, I am unable to sustain the petitioners’ allegations of bad faith or improper purpose and I decline to quash the 2021 Amendments on that basis.”