Relations between the city of West Hollywood and the Chamber of Commerce were put to the test Monday as the council considered a measure that would cut chamber funding.
The agenda item, sponsored by Councilman John Erickson and Mayor Pro Tempore Sepi Shyne, called for the discontinuation of two chamber functions paid for by the city, which would remove $79,800 from the chamber’s annual budget.
The proposal would cut the chamber’s commuter center services, such as the sale of Metro tap cards and transit program marketing, and its business outreach program. Additionally, the measure would discontinue a one-time contract valued at $75,000 for the chamber to provide mediation services for commercial landlords and tenants as part of the city’s COVID-19 relief efforts.
Under the proposed measure, the city would contract with organizations or perform the duties itself rather than pay the chamber for the services.
The reworked contract was proposed as part of a larger agenda item to promote transparency, ethics and public trust with city government. The item also called for changes to the city’s revolving door ordinance, which dictates when former city officials are allowed to be paid to lobby to the city.
Erickson said the motion was brought on by a lack of transparency in how the chamber uses its city funds, and a perceived conflict of interest caused by the chamber sponsoring a political action committee.
“I don’t know where a lot of dollars are going, and those are public dollars, and that’s something that I’m worried about,” he said.
However, some council members feared the measure was retaliation against the chamber for disputes it and the council have had over the past few months. The chamber has opposed several moves by the city, including a hotel ordinance that gives hotel workers extra protections and a city-wide increase in the minimum wage, which chamber president and CEO Genevieve Morrill said could hurt businesses still recovering from the pandemic.
Councilman John D’Amico said that though they may not always agree, the chamber provides valuable services to the city.
“I have deep, fundamental disagreements with the chamber, but one thing I do know is that they know our businesses,” he said. “… I don’t disagree with all the things you’re pursuing, but I want to make sure that as we’re pursuing them, we’re not cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
Mayor Lauren Meister agreed, stating the city holds contracts with other nonprofits that endorse candidates and work with political action committees, such as the Clinic for Economic Survival and Stonewall Democratic Club. She said that if the measure’s true intent was transparency, the council should look at all of its contracts in which similar situations arise.
“I do think it actually appears to be targeting the chamber, because this is not an issue that’s being discussed in general about all of our contracts,” Meister said. “I think that right now we should be focused on getting our businesses back to some form of normalcy. It doesn’t help to be attacking the chamber at this time.”
Both Shyne and Erickson said the measure was not intended as an attack on the chamber. Rather than receiving funds from the city, they suggested the chamber only be funded by its members and sponsors, so there would be no question as to whether city money was being used to fund opposition to city efforts.
Shyne said the removal of funds would not cripple the chamber and the measure would not close the door to future partnerships.
“This does not mean that we would not reach out to the chamber or work with them,” Shyne said. “It just means that we will not be funding the chamber of commerce with the city of West Hollywood funds.”
However, Morrill said the proposed measure creates misconceptions on how the chamber manages its funds. She said funds from the city are earmarked for city-approved projects and are only used for those services.
Additionally, she said the chamber’s sponsored PAC has since its creation in 2004 had separate financial accounts, advisory boards and bylaws. The city’s attempt to take funding and chamber services away, she said, was offensive.
“Putting out this type of propaganda is damaging and not helpful to repairing any relationships or finding ways to collaborate,” Morrill said. “It’s concerning that the council wants the chamber to agree lockstep with their policies and decisions, even if it’s bad for business, or face consequences and retaliation such as this.”
Morrill said the chamber’s mission is to create a thriving community by promoting business and advocating businesses’ interest to government leaders. Chamber funds from members and sponsors, she said, are used to advocate those interests.
The council ultimately agreed to table the item until June 2022, when it will be part of a budget discussion. In the meantime, the council directed city staff to perform an audit and compile a report on the feasibility of city staff or other nonprofits taking over services provided by the chamber.
Aside from the chamber initiative, the council addressed the city’s revolving door ordinance, which currently prohibits certain city employees and officials from lobbying the West Hollywood government for one year after their last day of employment. The amendment would change the wait period to four years.
The new rule, Shyne said, would help avoid a scenario in which a former city official turned lobbyist would place improper pressure on their former colleagues.
“We’re such a small city,” Shyne said. “We’ve had not only council members but staff that have worked here for so long, who are privy to a lot of insider information, who developed a lot of relationships, and one year doesn’t seem like enough time to be away from politics before stepping right back in and lobbying people you have served with.”
The recommendation was approved unanimously.
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