Should the Chapel Hill Town Council be a member of the Chamber of Commerce?

There was an interesting essay in the Chapel Hill News by Steve Hutton which asked the question: "Should government agencies be members of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce or any of the over 160 local chambers?"

The Chapel Hill Town Council is currently a member of the local CoC. Is this a good idea?


Total votes: 90


Since my office is up in Hillsborough I feel more tuned in to the business community up there these days. (In the interest of disclosure, I also chair the downtown merchants group in Hillsborough, but I try to go out of my way to make that an apolitical position.) The Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce counts among its members: the Town of Hillsborough, Orange County Economic Development Commission, the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, the Orange County Board of Education, the Orange County ABC Board, and the main Orange County Offices (Manager Frank Clifton's office), among others.Should all of these groups be Chamber members? I don't know, but my gut says yes. I've only ever had positive interactions with our Chamber up north, and they've been centered around putting on community centered events, not pushing an agenda. I don't know what the tax structure of either the Chapel Hill/Carrboro or Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber is (I'm guessing they're both 501(c)(6) organizations), and I'm certainly neither a lawyer nor a tax adviser. But it seems to me that at least on some level there is a blurred role for Chamber organizations - on one hand they serve as business advocacy groups, but on another they're more like organizations of organizations, trying combine and relate the interests of their constituent parts for the betterment of the community.I'll be the first to say I've been disappointed with the focus of many business groups on outside interests over locally owned enterprise, chambers of commerce not excluded. But it's a fine line. Commerce isn't a dirty word, and I think participation by many constituent groups is a good thing. To me, a better question might be, as an employer and Chamber member, how is the town pushing its interests (our interests!) within the Chamber?That said, I think it's a good question and I'd like to hear arguments from both sides!

Given that the Chambers lobby local governments, it does seem inappropriate. And after Aaron Nelson used Chamber resources to send out his "personal" endorsement of a Mayoral candidate in 2009, I'm suprised there isn't a lot more soul searching going on about this. 

No, the Town of Chapel Hill should have nothing to do with the Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber of Commerce at the local, state, and national levels all hold particular political views that might very well be in conflict with the Town of Chapel Hill.  These political views are why my business is not a member.

Care to tell us who you are or what your business is?

The "local" CoC includes heavy corporate hitters like Duke & Progress Energy that are about as far from "Main Street" as you can get. As you pointed out, the election endorsements showed that the sustainable, community face of the CoC is mere window-dressing when it comes to actual politics & policy.

I don't necessarily disagree, but I think there are two issues here. In my opinion, the Council has a right to be a Chamber member, but that doesn't mean that they should choose to. Whether or not they should choose to depends on how the Chamber operates, and whether its values for promoting business align with the town's. On that point, I'm unconvinced.

The group opposing the Homestead Road site for Community House is
using the town's participation in the Chamber as an argument that they
cannot be neutral in reviewing the SUP.Here's the email they sent out on Sunday:

Dear Friends & Neighbors, 

Today's CHN guest column by Steve Sutton entitled Joining the Chamber is risky rightly comments on the conflict of interest that town governments have when they join the local Chamber of Commerce. 

Hutton points out, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce is a
private entity that lobbies and works on behalf of its business members.
The Town of Chapel Hill is a member of the chamber.  Membership by the
town creates a conflict of interest and calls into question the
neutrality that the town should have when looking at issues that concern
citizens and private businesses. 

Here's what Steve
Hutton says:  "If a citizens group opposes a real estate development,
will that group feel they have received an impartial hearing if both the
town and the developer are members of the chamber?"

Wow!  We
could not have said it any better.  Advocates of  may
not receive impartial treatment because the town and developer are both
members of the Chamber. 

Further evidence of this conflict appeared in the Chapel Hill News one year ago (February, 2010) entitled New shelter no "warehouse"
an article featuring endorsements of the proposal to move the
Interfaith Council (IFC) homeless shelter to MLK Blvd and Homestead
Rd.   The front-page article pictured Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and
featured quotes from both the mayor and Aaron Nelson, president of the
Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. 

to the lead, Kleinschmidt "wants to change how people are talking about
the men's homeless shelter. It's not moving from Rosemary Street to
Homestead Road. It's closing, and a new facility will take shape near
Homestead Park." In a statement that is both inaccurate (the new
facility would still offer emergency shelter in addition to transitional
services) and clearly intended to advocate for the relocation,
Kleinschmidt said, "This isn't moving the operations of the shelter to

According to the story, Nelson, who is not a
policymaker, said "Neighbors' fears of increased crime outpace the
actual risk." He also said, "They think they're in danger, but, really,
they're afraid. Sometimes there's a public interest that trumps the
special interest of the people most proximate."

Advocates of a
better site for the new homeless shelter also see the conflict of
interest the Town of Chapel Hill has with its membership to the
Chamber.  It's clear that the Chamber president endorses the move, and
the mayor agrees with this public endorsement.  IFC, the shelter
provider, has a long relationship with the Chamber and is listed in the
Chamber's business directory.  Also listed in the Chamber's business
directory is the "Chapel Hill Town Council".

On March 21st Mayor
Kleinschmidt will be lead judge of the quasi-judicial SUP process that
will determine if the proposal to move the Interfaith Council (IFC)
homeless shelter to MLK Blvd and Homestead Rd will be approved. 
Regardless of the cause, judges should not advocate for any party
anticipated for a judicial proceeding.

ABetterSite Team

Let's be clear here.  ABetterSite had nothing to do with the Sunday column.
ABetterSite folks read the column and shared with our members that the generic conflict of interest concerns that Mr. Hutton identified are more than mere concerns and actually exist in the shelter siting situation. We have been aware of this all along, but the column was quite timely and we took the opportunity to make this clear to our members.
The pressure that the chamber has clearly exerted in their candidate questionnaires in at least the last two elections to have the shelter moved out of downtown with no concern about the process that is used to select the target site is very problematic, particularly with the wreckless comments by Mr. Nelson in that article.  Mr. Nelson's special interests trump putting every at risk overnight social service in the county in 1/5 of a square mile, in his opinion.  Mr. Nelson's statements which slam those who are receiving the very services that the Chamber's seeks to get rid of is the definition of hypocritical. Update: To make sure I am being clear, I believe that the work of the chamber is critical to our town.  However, I object to the position and statements made in the shelter siting situation.  The Chamber needs to be sensitive to neighborhoods and the community at large with its influence.  And I think that the town needs to have liasons with the chamber, but I don't think that the member list should include "Chapel Hill Town Council".
I am not sure what the title "Motive" on Terri's post implies.

The Town Council of Chapel Hill approves special use permits for development in the town limits and any (not much if any) extra territorial area. The Council doesn't have conflict of interests, only its elected members can have a conflict if they personally would profit from a SUP decision. Council members don't have to be neutral about anything (in fact, that's impossible); they are required to receive, in the SUP "quasi-judicial" proceedings, evidence (not stupid opinions or petitions) that is presented in support or opposition to approval. The evidence is to be weighed against the conditions for approval in the development ordinance. Weighing is not the absence of opinion on the part of each Council member, but the testing of opinion against the evidence/requirements.The Council holds public hearings to allow citizens to voice their opinions on the SUP application, much of which is not evidence, but which the Council hears anyway and probably keeps in mind when they have to make their vote at a later meeting. Everyone is heard (although the losers after the vote will swear they were not heard); the political vote will be taken; the project will or will not proceed; the sulking will be acute; the world will move on. Should the Town be a member of the COC? Sure, our business community needs all the support it can get. Is Town membership a conflict-of-interest when the Chamber supports or opposes a development application? Don't think so, the Town belongs to many things it's free to ignore when making decisions.   

Instead of expecting the town to stop participating in the local Chamber of Commerce, it might be more beneficial to ask the local Chamber to sign on to the US Chamber Doesn't Speak for Me campaign. They would be joining Duke Energy, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Seventh Generation and other local chambers. 


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