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Probe of City Chamber Memberships Expands to Berkeley
It appears that Berkeley, like Richmond, is investing in its Chamber of Commerce while the Chamber is politically active in local elections in violation of Penal Code Section 424, Government Code Sections 8314 and 83116.

There was a time when Chambers of Commerce had enough to do promoting their communities, but now they have turned to promoting political candidates with financing assistance of local government. With membership fees buried in three-inch thick budgets, I doubt if Council members in either Richmond or Berkeley knew that they were helping finance, in some cases, their own political demise with taxpayers’ money. I couldn’t even find Richmond’s $10,000 membership dues for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce in our budget.

Richmond Council Drops Chamber Membership

By Judith Scherr (11-17-06), Berkeley Daily Planet

The Richmond City Council voted Nov. 14 to drop its membership in the Richmond Chamber of Commerce “to avoid potential civil or criminal penalties for using public resources to pay for memberships in organizations that participate in local political activities,” according to an e-mail from Richmond City Council-member Tom Butt.

A letter to Richmond City Attorney John Eastman from consulting attorney Jayne Williams of Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, cites the case of Stanson v. Mott, from which she concludes that “such a membership paid for from the city’s treasury would undermine established jurisprudence and public policy that the public’s time, money or other resources may not be used to promote or oppose ballot measures or for other political campaign purposes….”

Williams further cites California state government code Section 54964(a) which says: “An officer, employee, or consultant of a local agency may not expend or authorize the expenditure of any of the funds of the local agency, to support or oppose the approval or rejection of a ballot measure or the election or defeat of a candidate, by the voters.”

In Berkeley, the City Manager’s Office pays $245 membership dues annually to the Berkeley chamber as does the Fire Department, according to budget manager Tracy Vesely. (The Police Department is listed as a Chamber member, but payment of dues has not been verified.)

This year the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce endorsed candidates for mayor and City Council and for and against ballot measures, as it has in previous elections.

The Daily Planet asked Deputy City Attorney Kristy van Herick, who is secretary to the Fair Political Campaign Practices Commission, whether Berkeley could be similarly in violation in belonging to an organization that supports and opposes political candidates and measures. Van Herick, however, said that since the question does not fall within the purview of Berkeley’s local election law, she is unable to respond.

Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz did not return calls before deadline.

City cuts ties to business associations
RICHMOND: Officials cancel chamber, industry council memberships because of groups' political activities
By John Geluardi

Posted on Sat, Nov. 18, 2006

The Richmond City Council officially withdrew its membership in two politically active business organizations after discovering council members could face criminal charges.

The council has ended the city's ties to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the West Contra Costa Council of Industries, both of which took active roles in recent local political campaigns.

Most notably, both organizations contributed money to the No on Measure T campaign. The measure, which would have raised about $8.5 million in new revenue mostly from the Chevron refinery, was overwhelmingly defeated Nov. 7 by 57 percent of the voters.

The council supports and respects the work the chamber does, but the city had to end the relationship, said Councilman Tom Butt, who owns a business in Richmond and has been a chamber member for 30 years.

"The issue is: What the city has been doing is illegal," he said. "The chamber has become more strident and brazen in its political advocacy, and the city's membership confuses the public and makes the city and council look bad."

The chamber has a membership of 480 local businesses. The Council of Industries has 41 member companies such as Chevron, ConocoPhilps and the General Chemical Corp.

Taxpayers paid $10,000 a year for the city's membership in the chamber and $850 in annual dues for the city's membership in the Council of Industries.

City Manager Bill Lindsay sat on the chamber's board of directors, though he did not have voting powers. With the city's withdrawal, Lindsay will no longer participate.

The council took the action this week after Butt requested a legal opinion about the city's membership in both organizations.

Attorney Jane Williams with Oakland-based Meyers Nave Riback Silver & Wilson determined in a five-page report that the city's membership was illegal and could result in civil or criminal penalties.

"The city of Richmond, and, or, city staff acting in their official capacity may not have a city paid membership in an organization that opposes or supports ballot measures or that advocates for or against the election of a candidate for local office," Williams' legal opinion says.

The chamber has formed a political action committee to fund its campaign activities that is separate from the organization, chamber President Judy Morgan said.

Williams determined that both the chamber and its separate political action committee are directly engaged in political advocacy.

The chamber promotes the city through programs such as the Summer Youth Jobs and Hire Richmond First, and the convention and visitors bureau, Morgan said. The city has been a member of the chamber off and on for more than 20 years.

"Most cities understand and value their chambers," she said. "And Richmond is a member of the California League of Cities. Isn't that a political entity?"

Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or jgeluardi@cctimes.com.