Two months ago, the Crested Butte News published a citizen’s letter calling on the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce to respect the will of its membership and take a political stand on the mining proposal on Mt. Emmons.
In a nutshell, some business owners want the Chamber of Commerce to start to represent their interests politically. In response, the Chamber of Commerce is considering doing just that.
This has been a long time coming.
For at least four years, the Chamber of Commerce has been reshaping its mission. It switched to a voluntary membership organization with members paying dues (as opposed to a mandatory group funded through the Business Occupation and Licensing Tax [BOLT]). Around the same time, the Chamber of Commerce shut down its call center business and announced it would start providing traditional member services like business training seminars.
Now, Chamber executive director Christi Matthews says the Chamber of Commerce board is considering dipping its toes deeper into the political waters by taking firm stands on issues like the mine proposal and advocating for local businesses.
On Monday, December 11, Matthews appeared before the Town Council to discuss formalizing the relationship between the Town and the Chamber of Commerce, which has existed for several years, with a service contract.
On its surface, the Chamber’s service contract was intended to establish an agreement between it and the Town for the operation of the Visitor’s Center, which the Chamber of Commerce currently runs. Matthews explained the contract is needed to ensure the Chamber is properly maintaining the Visitor’s Center.
During the discussions, Crested Butte Town Council member Leah Williams very astutely observed that the contract marks a departure from the Town and Chamber’s informal relationship and questioned the Chamber’s new drive to become more of a voice for local businesses.
Matthews explained the Chamber is planning on dividing its budget to reflect its three primary (but somewhat divergent) tasks—maintaining the Visitors Center, hosting special events and acting as an advocate and resource for businesses. The new contract would allow the Chamber to separate Town monies going to pay for the Visitors Center from its newly adopted advocacy mission.
This is where things get weird.
On Monday night it was suggested that the council shouldn’t sign the Chamber’s contract to operate the Visitor’s Center unless the contract included provisions forbidding the Chamber to advocate against Town Council decisions. If signed, the provisions could mean the Chamber couldn’t actively dissent against things like the Town’s sidewalk maintenance ordinance, horizontal zoning and more.
Essentially, the Town Council is now faced with two questions:
• One, is it ethical for BOLT funds to go to a politicized Chamber of Commerce, even if the funds are specifically marked for the Visitor’s Center?
• Two, is it appropriate for the Chamber of Commerce to operate the Visitor’s Center if the organization becomes politically active?
Crested Butte mayor Alan Bernholtz answered no to at least the first question. He said he does not believe the Town should give any funds to an organization that could actively campaign against Town policies—even if it’s in exchange for services rendered.
Williams took a significantly softer stance but basically said the same thing. Williams said she respects the Chamber’s role in representing local business. However, she said she’s concerned about the effects it could have on the Town Council’s ability to protect the welfare and safety of the community. When organizations protest the Town Council’s decisions, Williams said, "then it can be difficult for the Town to stand by its decision."
However, if the Chamber of Commerce board does decide to take a political stand on an issue that’s contrary to the Town, it should give the Town Council reason to pause and reflect—whether it’s on parking issues, zoning or something else.
This conversation is surprising because the Chamber of Commerce has essentially been a political entity for at least two years. Matthews consistently attends Town Council meetings and attempts to point out elements in proposed ordinances that might detract from the health of local businesses.
The Chamber of Commerce is now saying that they may want to take that one step further—by becoming a business advocacy group. This is not foreign territory for Chambers of Commerce—many Colorado Chambers take active stances to support businesses. It is new ground for the local Chamber of Commerce, after many years of being fully under the town’s auspices.
While Williams and Bernholtz may have concerns about the Chamber having lobbying power and operating the community Visitor’s Center, I don’t. Like every business owner in town, the Chamber of Commerce staff is perfectly capable of turning down the rhetoric when guests are around. My greater concern is whether the Chamber of Commerce is politically mature enough to take on this responsibility, when it’s clearly still in its gawky teenage years. To be effective, it will have to grow up rather quickly.
Finally, town manager Susan Parker has suggested it may be illegal for the town to give money to an organization that pushes its political views, according to a new state law. While Matthews has said the Chamber will address this point, the Town should find some way to ensure that the Chamber of Commerce can be an active political force in this community, if its members so choose. Our business owners deserve that.