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Rob Shaw: Locke and Farnworth's fiery phone call exposes entrenchment over Surrey policing

Phone recording submitted to the courts reveals two politicians more interested in talking at each other rather than listening
The Surrey Police Service is in the process of taking over the policing duties of the Surrey RCMP

Before their working relationship devolved into a bitter war of words, Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth spent almost 40 long, unsuccessful minutes on the phone in mid-2023 trying to avert the political disaster that is now the Surrey policing mess.

Clearly, it didn’t work.

Yet the conversation, a recording of which was tabled in court by the NDP government as part of its response to Surrey’s judicial challenge, is still fascinating.

It portrays two politicians on the verge of a worsening crisis, who spent their meeting talking at one another instead of listening to what each other was saying, and who appeared entrenched into their positions based on the advice of their respective staff.

Mostly they regurgitated talking points that mirrored comments they’d already made at numerous press conferences. And while they both expressed a desire to keep things from escalating, within hours of the call events further spiralled out of control.

“I have no personal issue with you on this issue,” Farnworth told Locke, addressing a complaint Locke had made directly to Premier David Eby in a phone call just hours earlier.

“I don’t want you to think that I do. I just want to make that clear.”

Locke made the call June 15 to inform Farnworth she was holding an in-camera meeting of Surrey city council that afternoon, where her majority party would once again confirm her election promise to halt the transition to the new municipal Surrey Police Service and preserve the existing contract with the RCMP.

The vote would kick into gear a series of events, including a month later when Farnworth would order Surrey to stay with the SPS on public safety grounds. Surrey is challenging that decision in court, and this week both sides submitted evidence to a judge — including a recording of the phone call, made by Michael Snoddon, Farnworth’s chief of staff.

In the call, Farnworth appealed for Locke to stop the council vote, saying he had yet seen a new report she referenced that purported to show how the city could handle the transition back from the SPS without a mass exodus of members, and without the RCMP pulling officers from other B.C. communities to backstop Surrey.

“I really do need to see a clear concrete plan from the city if we want to work together,” said Farnworth.

“I’ll ask again that you don’t hold the vote until my staff and your staff are able to agree on the details on what it is you’re voting on. That’s my ask, because that’s my role as solicitor general, to make sure I meet my statutory responsibility for safe and effective policing.”

Locke expressed frustration, saying she felt pushed to hold the vote in part to respond to Farnworth’s letters and public comments that her community should get on with making its final decision. She’d also held several private meetings with Eby on the issue, which court filings have also revealed.

“I’m sorry, Mike, I don’t know how else to do this,” said Locke.

“We will be going forward with the vote. Of course we want to work with you … but stopping a vote and asking us to ensure that you approve of what the city council is dealing with is extraordinary. That isn’t something I think I could ever guarantee.”

Locke refused to provide Farnworth the city report, saying a redacted version could be relayed to the province after the vote. Days later, Eby, Farnworth and other top officials would agree to sign non-disclosure agreements to access the document.

The recorded call also makes clear that while from the outside the policing drama appeared fuelled by personal animosity between Locke and Farnworth, it was also driven by the positions of provincial and municipal staff that entrenched the politicians even further.

Farnworth’s deputy minister, Doug Scott, insisted the SPS officers could walk off their jobs en masse if council voted in favour of retaining the RCMP.

“Our concern is within the ministry that the Surrey Police Service collapse could come rapidly and potentially even very completely, which would cause a crisis frankly in policing in Surrey, that would have to be backstopped by moving resources in throughout the province,” Scott said.

No such thing occurred after the vote.

Locke’s city manager, Vince Lalonde, who has since retired, said it was the province’s responsibility to ensure a “meltdown” at SPS did not occur through its control of the police board and suggested Farnworth get the report directly from the RCMP. But that route proved a dead end for provincial officials.

The only thing Farnworth and Locke agreed upon was their frustration at the protracted public nature of the dispute. Locke cited media outlets camped out at Surrey City Hall, calling it a “media frenzy” and added that “I don’t want to make this a spectacle anymore.”

“Right now I can tell you that this is becoming a constant nightmare,” said Locke.

“It has taken too long. It’s taken the city too long to do some things, but it’s certainly taken the SPS way too long to get their act together.

“Right now we have to just finalize this. The public is just done, they are so done with this conversation and so is the media. And it’s becoming a massive challenge.”

Farnworth said he understood.

“I appreciate your position and I respect your role as mayor and what you believe you’re doing in the best interests of your city,” he said.

After the call and the council vote that afternoon, Farnworth and Locke’s offices exchanged terse messages that then devolved into public press conferences in which the politicians criticized each other.

Two days later, Locke publicly accused Farnworth of bullying and misogynistic behaviour.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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