A Merritt society has lashed out at RCMP for what it said was high-priced police harassment of visitors to a Nicola Valley bike event last summer, adding policing costs now threaten the viability of future rallies.
Allegations from Great Canadian Bike Rally come as the society is hit by a second lawsuit for non-payment of debts, this time from the City of Merritt. Community Futures Nicola Valley filed suit last month over $45,000 in debts.
The City of Merritt filed a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court. It seeks about $75,000 for special policing, ambulance and firefighting costs accrued by rally events in Merritt in 2011 and 2012.
But Great Canadian Bike Rally, a provincially registered society, published a statement on its website alleging policing drove away potential rally visitors.
"They (rally organizers) started receiving horror stories of police harassment, road blocks — often rude or harassing — tickets being issued for very minor issues, especially on custom-built bikes and a generally negative attitude," the statement said.
"They learned later that people were leaving the rally in droves, checking out of hotels and warning others not to come."
The price tag from the City of Merritt for the treatment by RCMP was $38,000. There were also costs for firefighters and paramedics.
Mike Fairfield, one half of the father-son duo that serves as promoters and directors of the society, could not be reached Tuesday.
Sgt. Norm Flemming from Merritt RCMP, said police issued fewer than 14 tickets for Motor Vehicle Act offences or safety infractions and "arrests were minimal.
"There was a roadblock and people got stopped. Merritt's not that big of a town. If you drive uptown and back, you'll hit some roadblocks."
Flemming said he based policing numbers on estimates of 15,000 to 20,000 visitors from organizers. With indoor and outdoor venues serving booze, police had to be ready. He said the detachment logged about 200 calls for service, compared to 80 on a typically busy weekend in the small town.
According to the society's statement on its website, the Fairfields have been accused of receiving "unjust compensation and benefits" from the rally. The Fairfields deny those allegations, saying they were not paid any wages.
The Fairfields signed personal guarantees to secure some needed loans. The society said a truck and motorcycle have already been seized. Community Futures is seeking a judgment against Paul Fairfield's Merritt home for non-payment of debts, states the website.
Reached Tuesday, Merritt councillor Clara Norgaard said benefits to merchants from the July rally were overstated. She said she spent a half-hour downtown during the rally and saw little going on in return for street closures that prevented residents from doing normal business.
Norgaard said organizers forecast as many as 30,000 visitors last year. The City of Merritt estimates there were 5,000 in the end. But police were ready for the larger number.
"As soon as they realized numbers weren't there they sent police home."
The councillor and former mayor also made no apologies for enforcement by RCMP officers who remained.
"If bikes weren't legal and not equipped with proper gear, do you think the police should turn a blind eye? Maybe they were saving a few lives out there."
Rally organizers said they want to host a third event in 2013, "with a commitment to pay any reasonable prior cost over a three-year period."
But they refuse to pay the past outstanding policing costs and advised the City of Merritt to balk as well.
Norgaard said given the financial problems and lack of attendance, she's not sure about the viability of a third event.
"My personal opinion is I'd question it."