Chambers Of Commerce See Roles As Business Advocates Quelled By City Subsidies

A crisis of purpose, justification and effectiveness has gripped a number of San Bernardino County’s local chambers of commerce, decades after the traditional function of the once-influential trade groups was compromised by government interference. In some cases there has been controversy over the action of the chambers and in others the parasitic nature of those that have commandeered them. In still others, their politicization has created a circumstance where membership in them can become a disadvantage rather than an advantage for members of the business community, or otherwise have them supporting chamber action which is diametrically opposed to their personal and business interest.
Historically, chambers of commerce grew out of the medieval tradition of guilds, which were associations or fraternities of craftsmen based on their trades, such as textile makers, masons, carpenters, carvers, glass workers, chandlers, tinkers, millers, brewers and the like. Such confraternities were intended to provide protection to such tradesmen against outsiders or others that would seek to exploit them, as well as to keep secure trade secrets and methods. Chambers of commerce, which exist as a fraternity not of craftsmen of a specific type but businessman in a geographically defined locale, were intended as a bulwark against the excessive regulation and taxation imposed by governmental authority both local and national. The first such chamber of commerce was founded in 1599 in Marseille, France. Their nature and function have varied and evolved somewhat over the centuries, but strictly defined, modern chambers of commerce are forms of business networks, the ostensible goals of which are to further the interests of businesses. Business owners in towns and cities form these local societies to advocate on behalf of the business community. Local businesses and entrepreneurs are members, and they elect a board of directors or executive council to set policy for the chamber. The board or council then hires or elects a president, and appoints or hires a CEO or executive director, plus staffing appropriate to the size of the city or community in question, to run the organization.
As a non-governmental institution, a chamber of commerce has no governmental authority and no direct role in the writing and passage of laws and regulations that affect businesses. Traditionally, however, they are purposed to push for legislation to assist in the prospering of business and to lobby for governmental policies that are favorable to businesses.
Decades ago, governmental entities, recognizing that chambers of commerce represent a major, or in some jurisdictions, the major, impediment to certain governmental imperatives such as taxing and regulation proposals, moved to combat or otherwise compromise the chambers’ effectiveness. Generally speaking, governments have not sought to impose restrictions on the chambers’ functions as much as they have chosen to co-opt them. A major tactic in the municipal playbook on how to pull the teeth of these chambers consists of “helping” them rather than hurting them, i.e., subsidizing them, and in so doing ameliorating their policies and approaches.
It is not uncommon for a local chamber of commerce to derive funding from the city or town government where it is set up. In the Inland Empire’s Central Valley, which comprises ten San Bernardino County cities stretching from Redlands in the east to Ontario in the west, six of those ten cities subsidize the local chamber of commerce in annual amounts from $15,000 to $38,000, with the average calculated at just under $24,000. In addition to subsidies, three of those cities provide a rent-free location for their chambers.
The cities rationalize this monetary support by touting the “scope of services” the chambers provide to the community. This scope typically entails conducting networking/speaker engagements to provide information to and about businesses, creating and maintaining an internet presence for the chamber and thus the business community, conducting small business workshops, functioning as a labor liaison, coordinating grand openings and ribbon cuttings, preparing and maintaining a spreadsheet of businesses, working with the city to provide promotional materials, and conducting surveys of local businesses on a variety of issues. That justification, however, is merely window dressing. What the cities are buying with the money is the complacence of the chamber and its constituents individually and collectively toward the city’s efforts to achieve its goals.
On occasion, a city’s residents and business community will be treated to the spectacle of the chamber of commerce, officially as an organization, together with its leadership, pushing for business and community support of city policies that are diametrically opposed to the interests of local commerce.
In Upland in 2000, the city proposed levying a utility tax on all residents and businesses in town. Because they felt the chamber was beholden to the city for the financial support it had been providing to the chamber, a majority of the chamber board, over the objection of some board members and many of the chamber’s members, voted to have the chamber officially support the tax measure. That was a watershed event for the chamber, as several of its members broke ranks with the organization and joined in with the tax measure’s opposition. The measure failed at the polls 73 percent to 27 percent.
For many, the chamber’s action in supporting the tax rendered clear what had been a reality lurking below the surface for some time: the chamber’s function of representing the business community in the face of government excess or policies antithetical to the interests of the business community had been compromised to the point of corruption.
Similarly, businesses in Colton would go through the same learning process. In Colton, the chamber of commerce had grown into something of an official institution, akin to a special branch of government. The chamber office was housed in a portion of the civic center complex. By the late 1990s, the chamber had as its executive director Dick Dawson, a fellow with a very strong personality. Capable and gregarious, Dawson was effective in expanding the membership and reach of the chamber. But because the chamber, and Dawson, were reliant upon the city for subsidization and its offices were housed – gratis – in a city-owned building, the Colton Chamber of Commerce, like that in Upland, was blurring the distinction – and in some cases outright forcing a merger – between the interest of City Hall and the interests of the business community, even when those interests were at odds. And because it was the city government that was doling out the money for the chamber to maintain itself as a major community institution, whenever a true conflict arose between the business community as represented by the chamber and City Hall, the issues were almost always settled in favor of the city. So at one with the city’s advocacy and interest was the chamber that many people in Colton – including entrepreneurs and residents – thought Dawson was a city employee.
A tribute to Dawson’s capability and strength of personality is that the Colton Chamber of Commerce is today a vigorous organization with 143 corporate members in good standing.
Nevertheless, on no issue of substantial difference between the city and its business community does the chamber take a hard line against the city or its political leadership.
In Highland, Nanette Peykani, the executive director of the Highland Area Chamber of Commerce, has been waging a battle to keep the chamber relevant in the second decade of the Third Millennium.
In Highland, the chamber as in many places elsewhere had become a creature of government, or a partial creature of government, unable to sustain itself on funding from local businesses and instead highly dependent on, some might say addicted to, subsidization from City Hall. But with the demise of California’s redevelopment agencies due to legislation passed in 2011, the City of Highland’s vehicle for delivering a life sustaining subsidy to the chamber of commerce evaporated.
With that blow, sufficient revenue to provide Peykani with a salary was unavailable. Gamely, Peykani over the last eight or nine months continued to function as the chamber’s executive director, holding the organization together, virtually by strength of will.
At present, she is working toward reestablishing the chamber as a true representative of the Highland Business Community, one that is not beholden to, and thus independent from, City Hall. In seeking to do this, Peykani is restructuring the membership dues for the chamber, reducing the fee to join in an effort to grow the ranks of the chamber so it can indeed be a voice of authority at the local policy table.
And recently, the chamber has made sufficient headway in generating operating revenue to again provide Peykani with a paycheck.
Meanwhile, back in Upland, this year another illustration of how chambers of commerce have become an adjunct – some might say lap dog – of local government played out.
Eric Gavin, an Upland resident transplanted from Pomona and San Dimas, ran for city council in the special election held in 2011 to fill the vacancy created on the panel when councilman Ray Musser was elevated to mayor following the resignation and indictment of former mayor John Pomierski. Gavin was not successful in that elective bid, in which Debbie Stone was victorious, but Gavin has since been a mainstay at city council meetings, where he evinces a civic interest by often commenting on items that come before the council as part of the agenda as well as non-agendized issues about which he will express his heartfelt notions.
Gavin is also a member of the Upland Chamber of Commerce and, by all reports, was energetically involved in several of its programs. Among those was the chamber’s leadership academy, which is devoted to the cultivation and application of leadership skills. The six-month program involves workshops and seminars on a variety of societal, community and civic topics, including education, health care, public safety and municipal government. The academy is oriented specifically with regard to topics with an impact on Upland, and those attending it after each seminar or workshop brainstorm with regard to sizing up how that particular issue was impacting Upland and what potential solutions existed. So infectiously enthusiastic was Gavin about his participation in the most recently concluded leadership program that he was recruited to lead the current leadership program as its project manager.
Earlier this year, an effort to recall Musser as mayor manifested and Gavin signed an intent-to-circulate a recall petition document in support of the effort. On September 28, that recall effort was officially initiated when another Upland resident, Hal Tanner, served the recall petition on Musser at that evening’s city council meeting, just less than three weeks after Musser had been discharged from the hospital following triple bypass surgery, which took place on September 8.
With the serving of the recall petition, Gavin’s support of the effort to remove the city’s mayor became public knowledge. This was exacerbated by his decision to take a leadership role in the Musser recall effort, acting as the master of ceremonies at a recall committee formation meeting at the city’s senior citizens center.
Reflexively, Musser visited the chamber office to let chamber officials, including operations manager Terri Galdo and chamber board chairman Terry Jeffers, know that he was less than pleased with one of the chamber’s higher profile member’s involvement in the ongoing attempted political coup. Musser, who owns an insurance agency in Upland and was himself a past president of the chamber, said he felt that Gavin’s involvement in the recall effort might be construed as transforming the chamber into a political action committee. Further citing the coordination between the leadership academy’s recommendation process and the city council, to whom those recommendations are provided, Musser asked Galdo and Jeffers to either have Gavin rescind his endorsement of the recall effort or have the chamber remove Gavin as the leadership academy project manager.
Gavin protested that Musser had overstepped his authority as mayor in making the request of the chamber.
“I was shocked – shocked – to learn that the mayor had visited the chamber and told them that he would not support this program if I remained its project manager, simply because he saw my name on the recall petition,” Gavin said.
Protest as he might, Gavin was provided with a crash course in real life leadership principles, learning that when he stepped into the political arena he himself became a political entity himself and that the chamber is not above political machinations and alignments of its own. Though he claimed to be shocked, it is not surprising to many others that when push comes to shove, the chamber sided with the politicians in place at City Hall. Forthwith, Gavin was informed by the chamber of commerce he would no longer serve as the project manager of the organization’s leadership academy.
On September 29, Gavin dashed off a missive to the chamber board in which he somewhat belatedly acknowledged “the chamber is a political organization,” despite the chamber’s own resistance to being so defined. He further stated that “because my name, being potentially associated with an effort to recall Mayor Musser, could be a detriment to the success of the vital leadership program, I willingly defer to the chamber’s preference for handling this situation.”
The chamber board did not spare any time at all in making its decision to cashier Gavin as the program manager.
Stating “There were several factors that went into this decision, some of which were totally unrelated to Mayor Musser,” Jeffers publicly explicated the reason the chamber was distancing itself from the individual it had until that point considered an exemplary community leader: “It is crucial that the person who holds this position interface closely with city council members, including the mayor,” said Jeffers.
On October 9, Gavin received an email from the chamber’s executive board of directors informing him it had been “decided that you can no longer act effectively as project manager for the Upland Leadership Academy, a strictly non-political organization. As a result, the board has passed a motion to remove you from that position as of this date.” The email further states, “The success of the leadership academy is significantly dependent on the active support of Upland’s current leadership, and cannot tolerate any hint of political discord in implementing its program.”

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