Business Leaders React to Departing Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts

Dianne Watts, who won’t be running again in November, will have served three terms as mayor.
Dianne Watts, who won’t be running again in November, will have served three terms as mayor.

Surrey residents may be out one mayor when Dianne Watts announced she won’t seek another term in city hall, but business leaders say they’ve lost something more: their biggest cheerleader

In her nine years in office as mayor, Watts established a new downtown core in Surrey, putting in major public investments into a new city hall and city centre of shops and services.

“It’s a huge loss for us, I hung my head a bit when I heard her say she’s not running again,” said Upkar Tatley, managing director of Onux Nexus, a Surrey-based corporate services company.

Tatley went with Watts on a trade mission to India in 2011 and says she was the first politician he worked with who had no interest in photo-ops. “She really pushed the spotlight on others and having her along at business meetings, she made very clear: Her job was to clear hurdles for us to get business done.”

It was at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new city hall Saturday when Watts announced she would not seek a fourth term. A week before, the first public cracks in Watts’ party, Surrey First, were seen when Councillor Barinder Rasode announced she was leaving the party. Rasode is now considering running for mayor herself.

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman, who has tangled with Watts before—most publicly over the mayor’s decision to back out of supporting a proposed casino in 2013—says the city needs to have another pro-business mayor. Huberman said Watts became a huge brand for the city, but that Surrey needs to move beyond that. “We can’t rely on Dianne’s brand. We’ve been lucky to have the ability to attract businesses here, but we also know that when you’re in that position you are in a situation when things are outside of your control.”

Huberman said it was a mistake for Watts not to support the casino project, which would have given Surrey a sizable convention centre to host major events. Public opposition to the casino was intense in the South Surrey area where it was proposed and Watts split from other members of her party, casting the deciding vote against the project in January 2013.

Crime has also been a trigger point for Watts. Last year, Surrey had a record number of homicides and the still-unsolved murder of hockey mom Julie Paskall in the parking lot of the Newton Arena left Watts on the defensive. “If we had more police officers to begin with, more infrastructure, more facilities to try and alleviate these prolific offenders off the streets—I don’t know if that’s a mayor’s role but that would have been a good piece to have taken care of,” Huberman said.

Parm Jhajj, owner of Jhajj Lumber in Surrey, says Watts was good at setting priorities. “In business, everyone’s got advice and if you listen too much to your advisors, your lawyers, your accountants, nothing gets done. You get shackled. Everyone has an opinion and Watts decided what she wanted to do.”

Jhajj says he’s been in business nine years, the same amount of time Watts has been in the mayor’s seat, and he has seen a change in city hall from the time they both began. “Pre-Dianne, city hall was a problem you had to find a way to deal with. During Dianne, city hall was where you went to to get help solving your problem. That’s a big thing for any business, whether you’re big or small. Is city hall helping you or causing you problems? She definitely did not cause us any problems.”