Coquitlam council is looking at new ways to get public input following a budget meeting on Oct. 3 that council members say was "hijacked" by business owners.
Mayor Richard Stewart said the business owners were given too much time to speak and intimidated other residents from getting up to talk about other issues.
"It really got hijacked," he said. "I felt it was unfortunate that a group of business owners almost designed the meeting so that residents couldn't get up and speak."
Coun. Mae Reid told the Tri-Cities NOW it was the time and place for concerned business owners to speak their minds, but it became too much of a focus.
"I do think, to be fair, it wouldn't have been very nice to the business people if everybody only talked about sports and fields," she said.
Stewart and Reid say there were residents at the meeting who felt too intimidated to speak and ended up leaving before the meeting was over.
"They felt like it wasn't for them," Reid said.
Reid thinks the solution should involve either separating business issues into their own meeting, or having a similar setup to the Union of B.C. Municipalities system with a pro-microphone and a con-microphone.
If no one is on the con side, then only one pro-speaker may go.
"In this case, you couldn't do a pro and con mic, but you could do a business and residents [mic], or something so that everyone feels they're included in the meeting," she said.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, small business owners and Mike Klassen, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), argued for tax relief and equality for local businesses.
"Right now what we're seeing is that businesses are paying a premium to be in the City of Coquitlam," Klassen told the Tri-Cities NOW the day of the meeting. "They could go to a neighbouring municipality and run their business for cheaper. That's not right."
A 2011 study by the CFIB suggested that Coquitlam businesses pay 4.69 times more in property taxes than residential owners. Those numbers rank Coquitlam's disparity as the highest among B.C.'s larger cities.
Last year, one business owner saw her bill spike by 70 per cent in a one-year period. In 2011, a City Centre business owner saw nearly a 50-percent increase in his tax bill. Klassen spoke before council on Oct. 3, stating the amount paid to city staff is too high, directly contributing to a "property tax tsunami."
Following its presentation, the CFIB got a commitment from mayor and council to meet with small business owners.
"Obviously we were delighted," Klassen said.
However, Klassen heard of council's reaction on Monday and was disappointed.
"To me, it's just an appalling arrogance that a mayor and council will be so dismissive of their small business community," Klassen said. "Actually hearing from your small business operators from your own city in a respectful way hardly amounts to hijacking."
Coun. Terry O'Neill said the small business owners were operating within the city's rules and thinks the word "hijacked" is too strong.
"I do agree, however, that they dominated the meeting too much," he said.
Coun. Neal Nicholson proposed adopting a practice of hearing from all residents once on one topic, then after everyone has had a turn residents could return to an earlier topic.
Stewart said at the least there should be an opportunity for concerned residents to speak on other subjects before one issue takes over.
However, Coun. Lou Sekora said the small business owners had a point, especially when it came to city staff payroll. Sekora pointed to the city's $260-million budget and the seven per cent going into reserves, totalling roughly $18.2 million.
"Is the city that poor we have to put that much money in on a yearly basis?" he said, adding some of that money could go to relieve taxation.
Stewart said the money put into reserves is needed for capital projects, as well as other items as they come up throughout the year.
Despite the comments made Monday, Klassen is still expecting council to hold to its commitment to speak with small business owners.
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