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O’Mahony settles dust-up over HST signs - for now

Local Fight HST organizer Glen Thompson is protesting the city’s decision to remove the group’s signs, saying the removal violates freedom of speech provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz defended the city’s action, saying the bylaw does not prohibit signs on city property, but sets out a permit process aimed at ensuring taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill of removing signs after election and referendum campaigns are over.

On Friday, NDP federal election candidate Gwen O’Mahony stepped into the fray with the $500 needed to obtain the permit, saying there’s not time to mount a court challenge to the bylaw before the June 24 HST referendum.

But Thompson vowed he’ll fight the city’s sign bylaw in court after the HST vote.

Meanwhile, former B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm is coming to Chilliwack on June 16 to speak at the Coast Hotel as he winds up a tour of the province promoting opposition to the HST.

Vander Zalm said he wasn’t surprised by the B.C. Liberal government’s promise last month to reduce the HST rate from 12 per cent to 10 per cent by July, 2014, but the final cut is three years away and “people don’t really trust them now.”

“The B.C. Liberals could be out of government by then, or some disastrous thing happens and the province needs more money,” he told The Progress.

“If they can reduce it so easily, they could similarly increase it,” he warned.

But Attorney-General Barry Penner, Chilliwack-Hope MLA, said the reduction is now enshrined in law, and can only be changed by the federal government.

“Vander Zalm hasn’t always had his facts straight,” Penner said. “Once again he’s demonstrated he’s confused.”

“There is now an opportunity for people to vote themselves a tax decrease,” he said, but only if they vote to keep the HST.

Thompson said city crews removed “hundreds” of Vote Yes signs, some of them on private property.

He insisted the $500 permit fee, though refundable, infringes on the rights of every citizen to freedom of speech.

“What if you don’t have the $500, or you’re illiterate and can’t read, does that mean you can’t participate?” he asked.

“We intend to challenge (the bylaw) in the Supreme Court,” he said. “We maintain our signs are legal.”

Gaetz said the bylaw does not prohibit signs, but sets up a process so city taxpayers don’t have to pay the cost of removing them after the election or referendum is over.

“They may or may not support your point of view, but they don’t want their tax dollars paying for the removal,” she said.

“We would never stifle a group’s freedom of speech,” she said. “If you pick up all your signs, you get all your money back.”

Clive Edwards, the Western Block Party’s candidate in the last federal election, didn’t think his role in the local sign campaign, led by NDP stalwarts Thompson and O’Mahony, proved the adage about politics making strange bedfellows.

“On a lot of issues, we’re on the same page,” he said. “On basic things, we don’t differ.”

He said the HST is “underwriting globalization” that both parties oppose.

“We don’t want poor people in B.C. giving their money to rich people - and that’s exactly what this tax does,” he said.

Ben Besler, who organized the original Fight HST petition drive in the Fraser Valley that led to the referendum, said he would have been “embarrassed by the oversight” to obtain a permit before erecting the group’s signs in Chilliwack.

But Besler said he was even more upset by Thompson’s suggestion that the organization is “too poor” to pay the $500 cost of a permit.

“I don’t see that organization as poor,” he said, pointing out the group got “900 more petition signatures than John Les had votes” in the last provisional election, and could have raised the $500 through donations.

Besler said he even offered on his Facebook page to pay the $500 himself.

“My thing is, no one’s above the law,” he said. “I’m all in favour of Gaetz’s decision.”

Besler said he hasn’t changed his mind about the HST, but he “stepped down” as the local organizer of the Fight HST campaign when he became the B.C. Conservative Party’s regional director in the Fraser Valley.

He said there was “no animosity” in his decision to leave the Fight HST organization.

“I had to step away and focus my energies elsewhere,” he said.

rfreeman@theprogress.com

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