Bill Grant Column December 23, 2009
Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce becomes an exclusive club
With a letter hand delivered to Western Colorado Congress, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce threw out of the organization, a longtime nonprofit member, and declared itself against citizens’ rights it finds inconvenient for industrial or commercial development.
Last week, after publishing a guest column (“Public votes on zoning discourage investment”) in The Daily Sentinel opposing the right of citizens to petition their local government on certain zoning issues, Chamber President and CEO, Diane Schwenke, delivered a letter to the WCC office terminating the environmental organization’s membership in the chamber.
WCC-Mesa County recently carried a petition requiring the City Council to revisit its decision to approve industrial zoning that enables Brady Trucking to build a terminal on property in the river corridor. That part of the riverfront had long been eyed for development compatible with the parks, residences, restaurants, light business and industry that would turn the Colorado River corridor into an attractive asset for the city.
Though Schwenke acknowledged that many people believe “the perceived conflict between industrial and public use of the riverfront is ... worthy of some discussion in its own right,” the chamber seeks to foreclose discussion by denying Grand Junction voters their legal right to petition city government on “an economic development and business climate issue.”
Schwenke’s column makes clear that this conflict is not just about the Brady property, but any zoning issue having economic or business implications. It is unclear what organizations, other than the chamber, the chamber board thinks should weigh in on these issues. But clearly the voters’ right to petition to revisit an issue they believe to be wrongly decided would be curtailed if the chamber position prevailed.
However, in Schwenke’s letter to Western Colorado Congress, the chamber’s grievances against WCC are not based on the Brady petition. Action was initiated, Schwenke wrote, in response to a letter from WCC member Duke Cox , who “implied a Chamber position that was not in fact an official position of the Chamber.”
Cox’s letter encouraged chamber members “to consider commenting on the draft Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission” rules at a public hearing in Grand Junction last June. It made no mention of testimony content.
The “implied position” the chamber found offensive in Cox’s letter is that “in 2006 the Chamber supported the city of Grand Junction watershed initiative.” The chamber says it did not support watershed protection. That will surprise not only WCC, but the many chamber members who signed the watershed petition.
Those in attendance at the Sept. 6, 2006, hearing when the City Council voted to accept the watershed petition will be surprised to learn that support of the watershed initative was not an “official position of the Chamber.” The very first person to address the City Council that evening was Karen Madsen, then chairwoman of the chamber. Those of us present that night came away with the impression she supported the watershed ordinance, although she didn’t directly say so. (The chamber actually opposed putting the measure on the ballot and wanted the City Council to draft its own watershed ordinance.) Can WCC be faulted for assuming she endorsed it on behalf of the chamber?
If the chamber wants to purge WCC from its membership, it should at least have the integrity to state the real reasons behind this action. It owes at least that much both to WCC and to its own members, some of whom also belong to and support Western Colorado Congress.
An open, transparent and democratic debate is essential to developing effective and fair public policy at all levels of government. Unfortunately, in recent years, powerful forces have determined to suppress dissent and silence alternative voices. While the chamber allies itself with those forces, Western Colorado Congress will continue to fulfill its role of helping socially responsible citizens express their views on issues that affect their lives and shape the communities in which they live. Democracy requires nothing less.