Bravo to the Chapel Hill News (Roses and Raspberries, Aug. 19, bit.ly/1wbzGln) for raising concerns about the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s increasing reliance on closed-door meetings – just one example of how this once-respected organization is polarizing our community.
Though chamber staff frequently claim to represent 1,100 members, it became clear during last spring’s Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek hearings that their lobbying efforts, in fact, serve the interests of only a select few. For example, the interests of Elliott Road small businesses and landowners were ignored during the Ephesus-Fordham rezoning discussions until area residents called attention to them. Meanwhile, chamber staff ridiculed council member Matt Czajkowski for appropriately questioning the use of public bond money to fund a private roadway for East West Partners – one of the chamber’s most powerful members.
Presumably, the chamber’s membership includes not only real estate professionals, but also businesses and organizations that are concerned about Chapel Hill’s environmental, transportation, social and economic challenges. Moreover, the chamber’s broad business community undoubtedly includes individuals who, by virtue of their professional expertise, could provide constructive input to help address these challenges and who could work collaboratively with the citizenry and town staff to improve the outcome for the entire community.
Unfortunately, the chamber’s board and their staff have chosen to take a more divisive approach, and the town’s new development processes, which exclude most public input and lack quasi-judicial protections (such as those present under the Special Use Permit process), are moving important conversations away from the council dais. As a result, there is now greater opportunity for moneyed organizations, like the chamber, to influence council decisions through discussions at special events like the “Local Government Appreciation Reception” and “Eggs with Elected Officials” and through their privileged access to key town staff members who give frequent briefings to the chamber.
‘No questions asked’
While these types of “government relations” events may have been going on for years, the Chapel Hill News accurately points out that changes in the way that the chamber discusses town issues, especially the recent increase in the number of closed-door chamber meetings, “flies in the face of Chapel Hill’s tradition of robust and transparent debate” and “raises suspicions about what is being said and, even more, left unsaid.” Again, one need look no further than the Ephesus-Fordham road funding fiasco to understand that this approach – which limits information exchange and reflexively throws chamber support behind every development proposal with “no questions asked” – will be costly to our community as a whole.
Looking to the future, let’s hope that all 1,100 members of the chamber will take a hard look at how their organization is being run, and that they will encourage their board and staff to work more openly and collaboratively. In the meantime, as long as the chamber’s board and staff continue to behave in ways that run counter to the interests of the community at large, the mayor and council members should have the courage and integrity to hold the chamber at arm’s length and decline to participate in its thinly disguised lobbying efforts. Those council members who continue to pay more attention to the tweets and briefings they receive from chamber staff than to the concerns of the broad majority of people they were elected to serve should be removed from office in 2015.
Diane Willis and Jean Yarnell live in Chapel Hill.