GJ feud pits incumbents vs. chamber
Some simmering tensions between the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and three incumbent Grand Junction city councilors seeking re-election flared into public view during Wednesday night’s meeting.
Councilor Laura Luke delivered a tersely worded statement against a chamber board member who has taken out an advertisement in The Daily Sentinel that sharply criticizes her.
One councilor, Sam Susuras, believes Luke’s short speech violated campaign laws because she used public television and city resources to deliver the message, while Grand Junction’s city attorney disagreed.
The ad Luke responded to was submitted by Michael Anton and claims in part that he is her “worst nightmare” and calls her “one of the most untrustworthy and misinformed” councilors. It has run in the Sentinel three times in recent days.
Anton said in an interview that he placed the ad and paid for it on his own accord, and the chamber was not involved in any part of the decision. His political ad also recommends voters cast ballots for Marty Chazen, Rick Brainard, Duncan McArthur and Phyllis Norris, the four candidates officially endorsed by the chamber.
Luke’s outburst Wednesday night in front of an audience largely consisting of chamber members who were there to weigh in on the council’s pending decision for the Greater Downtown Plan left some people slack-jawed. Susuras a few times sternly attempted to stop the speech, but Luke appeared to finish reading her statement.
“Mayor, shame on you for allowing a political speech from this platform,” Susuras scolded Mayor Bill Pitts. “The opponent deserves equal time if you’re going to do this.”
No other councilors disapproved of Luke’s statement during the meeting, and without comment, Pitts moved onto the next agenda item.
Luke first introduced herself as the city’s mayor pro-tem and a council member for District D.
“It’s recently come to my attention that a board member with the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce has seen fit to sling unfounded accusations at me and threaten me in public writing saying, quote, he is my worst enemy, he is my worst nightmare, which is even worse,” she said. “To set the record straight, unlike any other member of the chamber, I have taken an oath to represent all people.”
She continued later, “No threatening message is going to alter my obligation to the people of Grand Junction and if that’s how you intend to bully your citizens, I don’t think they’ll take kindly to it. Thank you, mayor.”
Luke said earlier Wednesday in an interview that she doesn’t see Anton as a threat, but claimed her worst nightmare “is watching (the Chamber) overrun citizens.” Luke said she heard Chamber President Diane Schwenke say at the annual banquet that the organization’s mission is to get its four endorsed candidates elected. Having four candidates vote in a similar manner would create a majority on the seven-member council.
“My whole intention is to stay focused,” Luke said. “I can’t let them get me off task or off guard.”
Two of the four endorsed candidates have connections to the chamber. Norris was the chairwoman of the agency’s board of directors in 2011. Brainard is a current board member. In 2010, Lois Dunn, Susuras’ wife, served as the board’s chairwoman.
“My only response to that is we go and actively solicit high quality leadership,” Schwenke said of the candidates the chamber endorsed. “I think the voters are smart enough to make their own decisions.”
The chamber has had a policy of endorsing candidates for years, she said.
Schwenke said one indication that the chamber’s endorsed candidates are acting independently is that two of the four candidates have said they do not support Referred Measure B, the ballot’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights override question. The Chamber is backing the measure.
“We’ve always been engaged and involved,” she said. “Our mission statement is to be the voice of business. I don’t think honestly we have been stepping up. Council has scheduled two fairly significant votes close to each other. We’ve been involved. Sometimes business owners don’t know what’s going on with (city issues). We also go out and talk to a lot of businesses.”
Recently, the chamber asked councilors to further consider fees charged to new development for road impacts and the Greater Downtown Plan.
Schwenke pointed out that chamber representatives have been working for years with businesses to apprise them of new pending city policies that could affect their operations. Often, she said, business owners wouldn’t know about these issues unless chamber representatives told them of proposed changes.
Councilor Bennett Boeschenstein said he thinks it’s the role of the chamber to be a civic group, not a politically motivated group. While he said he appreciated the agency’s involvement in the Greater Downtown Plan, he objected to a practice lately in which he said chamber representatives are allowed to talk in council workshops when general members of the public typically do not get that opportunity.
“I’ve asked the city manager to involve other groups and not to just hear one side,” he said.
Asked about Luke’s speech Wednesday night, Boeschenstein said he didn’t have a problem with it.
“I think she has the right to stand up for herself,” he said.
Pitts, who is running for re-election along with Tom Kenyon (Luke was appointed two years ago and is technically running for election the first time,) said Thursday he did not know what Luke had planned to say, and he didn’t know what she was referring to when she delivered the roughly one-minute speech. Pitts also said he didn’t hear Susuras object to Luke’s speech. He said Susuras often interrupts and now he just “blocks it out.”
“Right now I can’t tell you what she was talking about. When I ask for council comments, they can talk,” he said. “I’m running the meeting. It’s my call as to who talks and when.”
Pitts said he couldn’t say whether he would allow another councilor to give a similar speech in the future because that question is hypothetical.
Susuras said Thursday he thinks Luke told Pitts before the meeting what she had planned to say. If Pitts couldn’t hear Susuras, who loudly objected and didn’t listen to what Luke was saying, Susuras questioned why Pitts is allowed to be mayor or a councilor.
Susuras said he, too, is a member of the chamber.
Later at the meeting Wednesday night, Susuras objected to comments by some downtown business owners that the chamber was getting too involved in managing council decisions.
“I think it’s kind of a conflict to run down the chamber in a public meeting,” he said Thursday by phone.
Susuras also said he believed Luke’s comments may have been illegal because public funds were used to run the meeting. Susuras said City Attorney John Shaver told him if a quorum of councilors objected to Luke’s speech, he would have felt obligated to attempt to stop her.
“I think if we looked closer we would find out it’s illegal,” Susuras said.