“The Ashland Chamber of Commerce plays an important part in bringing the community together,” says Pam Marsh, city councilor in Ashland, OR. For the last 30 years, although the Ashland chamber coordinates community issues forums and hosts a discussion series to introduce all candidates to local people, it does not endorse candidates at any level, and does not provide funding for any candidate with a PAC.
“Avoiding politics really enables our Chamber to reach out to every part of the community,” Marsh says.
In Salem, the Salem Area chamber of Commerce endorses candidates and funds their campaigns through its Create Jobs PAC. Advocacy is emphasized at the local, regional and state level, with prominent links on the organization’s website to its PAC, to its positions on policy matters and to current openings on City of Salem boards and commissions, bodies the chamber encourages members to apply for.
Nick Williams, Director of Public Affairs for the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, says the approach of the local organization is inclusive in its own way. “Our process and transparency,” he says, “is thought of as a model in Oregon that numerous chambers around the state are beginning to replicate.”
Chambers of commerce operate independently with unique policies and procedures that Williams says “are driven by the communities they serve through their members and volunteer board of directors.” The Ashland chamber, he points out, also serves as the city’s “destination marketing organization” – or DMO.
“DMO’s are funded heavily by their municipal governments,” Williams says, “and in the early 1980’s – the leaders and membership of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce elected to not pursue the DMO contract with the City of Salem and Marion County. The reason for this was that there needed to be a collection point for business perspectives in the area of local public policy, and receiving public dollars significantly limited the ability to take strong positions on issues of importance to businesses and the community,” such as the Salem Convention Center, the redevelopment of the Boise Cascade site, “and the passage of numerous bonds which have improved the education and transportation systems in the mid-valley.”
Sandra Slattery, who has led the Ashland Chamber for decades, says her chamber’s neutral approach works well for the Ashland community. “We have one of the largest memberships per capita of any Chamber in the United States,” Slattery says. “I believe that’s because we’re a very diverse Chamber and welcome members with diverse views who appreciate that we’re open to everyone expressing their own opinion.”
According to Slattery, the Ashland Chamber holds regular meetings with legislators, school district leaders, the hospital, businesses “and anyone who wants to attend.” The Ashland Chamber candidate forums are recorded and shown on community access TV, and Slattery calls them “the most popularly-watched political media in our area.”
Marsh, who may leave her position on the Ashland council to run to represent the 5th District, says, “If we had a Chamber that took positions on these things instead of trying to simply educate, it would splinter the community.”
In Salem’s 2016 primary election cycle, some political observers believed the chamber did not consider every local mayoral and city council candidate for its endorsements. Williams says this is not so, though the Chamber’s scheduling may have affected that perception.
The Salem Area Chamber invited every candidate who had filed by late January to complete a written questionnaire and appear before its Public Policy Committee. However, candidates were not required to file until March 8.
The Chamber’s “accelerated timeline,” Williams says, “was necessary to have our endorsement process completed in time for the deadline to submit voter pamphlet statements in the Marion County and State of Oregon Voter Guides.”
Though the Chamber has now finalized its recommendations, Williams says all candidates are welcome to participate in an April 11 discussion to which the public is invited and which will be recorded by CCTV.