Chamber political involvement sparks debate

Diane Schwenke
Diane Schwenke

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

A recent municipal election that drew sharp distinctions between candidates and positions also sparked a debate about the role of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce in that process.

While the chamber long has taken positions on policies that affect business, its increasingly proactive efforts have drawn the indignation of some who believe the group has gone too far.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, maintains the group must not only advocate on behalf of businesses, but also support candidates who’ll listen to its arguments. “Over time we have learned that taking a position is great. But to be effective, we need leaders who understand the various interactions and consequences of public policy decisions,” Schwenke said.

While the move was subsequently reversed, the Grand Junction City Council voted 4-2 after the election to withdraw city membership from the chamber.

Council members Jim Doody and Bennett Boeschenstein voted for the move.

So did Bill Pitts and Laura Luke, two incumbent council members who were defeated in the election and didn’t receive chamber endorsements.

Tom Kenyon, another incumbent who also was defeated and didn’t receive a chamber endorsement, voted against the measure. So did Sam Susuras.

Theresa Coons, who was limited from seeking a third term, abstained.

Doody said the move to withdraw the city’s chamber membership was pursued because of what he perceives as a conflict of interest. “The chamber has become a political organization. It has become an issues committee, and they have said they would have influence on elections and candidates. City Council is non-partisan and should not be associated with that,” Doody added.

Schwenke said the chamber couldn’t fulfill its role as a voice for local business without political involvement. “Over at least the past 20 years we have seen how legislation at all levels has impacted business. What happens in the political arena affects business, either positively or negatively, and we need to pay attention.”

The manner in which the chamber meets that requirement has evolved, however, Schwenke said, from providing businesses a forum for expressing opinions on proposed legislation and other government action to endorsing candidates who understand what businesses need to create jobs. “We can talk all day long. But without people who listen to the business community and who understand the economy, we will never be effective.”

The latest part of the evolution was the creation of the Western Colorado Business Alliance as a 501(c)(4) organization, a status that refers to a section of the federal income tax code denoting non-profit organizations that engage in political lobbying.

The chamber formed the WCBA last year to inform voters and encourage voter registration, involve people in serving on boards and in elected offices and engage the public in discussions about how policies affect businesses and job growth.

Doody said the chamber was “hiding behind” the WCBA in the municipal election and called the formation of the organization a “conflict of interest that poses ethical concerns.”

Schwenke disagreed, describing the WCBA as a collaborative venture to handle issues the chamber can’t. “The chamber and the WCBA have the same goals, with different mechanisms. There are things that a (c)(4) organization can do that the chamber cannot. For instance, the WCBA can raise funds for ballot initiatives, produce white papers and organize voter registration, which the chamber cannot do. On the other hand, a (c)(4) is prohibited from endorsing candidates.”

“If the business community is to be effective in staying on top of policy issues that affect it, it needs both entities,” she said.

Doody said the chamber has overstepped its bounds and should be limited in what it does politically. “The chamber should get back to its original mission of helping out business.”

“The chamber is a lobbying organization, I understand that. But they don’t need to be our lobbyists,” Doody said. “We have the (Colorado Municipal League).”

Doody said the chamber’s political involvement has added to a polarization of the political landscape he called “disturbing.”

“Everything good about government is on Main Street. Local government is the heart and soul of America,” he said. For the chamber to bring politics into it is “amazing,” he added.

Susuras, who was selected as mayor following the election, takes a different view. He was among the council members voting to reinstate city membership in the chamber.

“We want to heal the rift with the Grand Junction chamber,” Susuras said. “There is no excuse for cutting ties with an organization that has been an integral part of the community for many years and one with which the city has always worked well.”

Martin Chazen, a newly elected council member who received a chamber endorsement during the election, introduced the motion to reinstate city membership. But he said he had more practical concerns. “The money is already out there,” he said, referring to the city’s $6,000  in annual membership dues that already had been paid for the current year.

“We voted to reinstate our membership to the level that has already been paid. Why throw that money away?”

Schwenke said concerns over chamber political activities are misplaced in a larger sense. “A community doesn’t exist without its business community. Any community needs job creators to provide services. Without the business community, we would not have police and fire protection, infrastructure or many of the other services we depend on.”

Susuras agreed. “You cannot have a good quality of life without good-paying jobs.”

Schwenke said she finds it ironic the chamber has been singled out when many other groups with an even deeper political focus have escaped similar wrath. “The environmental community, labor unions and others have been in this arena for some time and quite successfully,” she said. “Yet, when business steps up and says that our voice needs to be heard, that is suddenly a bad thing.”

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