Chamber gets some pushback

The chamber's recent foray into local politics has caused tension between the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and local elected officials


Published: Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 16, 2013 at 4:24 p.m.

Tensions between the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and local elected officials have been simmering for months. Last week, they boiled over.

The source of the tensions has been the chamber's recent forays into local politics. They include a chamber energy study group and chamber events on business regulations, energy issues and transportation.

Chamber officials also have been promoting a version of a transportation sales tax initiative based on measures passed in York County, S.C. The chamber brought an official from that county here Monday for meetings, culminating with a presentation to a joint session of the Alachua County and Gainesville commissions.

The presentation was better received than the energy group's meeting Tuesday with the City Commission. Commissioners spent a good deal of time criticizing the group's closed-door meetings and other aspects of its work.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins had previously suggested the city should drop its chamber membership in light of the "overtly political nature" of its recent meetings.

He's not alone in going after the chamber. County Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson entered the fray with an email in which he questioned whether the energy group provided a venue to biomass opponents who were "polarizing our local politics" and "shutting down rational debate."

He'll get an answer Tuesday, when the County Commission meets with the energy group. Chamber CEO Tim Giuliani said he hoped that the group actually removed politics from the conversation around energy.

"We're not going to agree on everything but I'm not going to let the organization put politics over policy," he said.

Local Democrats seized last week on Giuliani's statement on Facebook that the chamber "represents not only over 1,100 businesses, but the over 70,000 Gainesville-area residents they employ."

Former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan responded on Facebook that a figure of 70,000 would have to include public employees. She noted the city had huge majorities who voted for President Barack Obama.

She blasted the chamber for "holding fantasy-filled dog and pony shows to try to subvert progressive policy at every turn these days."

The chamber is certainly a special interest group representing business owners, whose typically conservative views aren't necessarily representative of the city as a whole. But local elected officials should tread lightly in a debate over who's most representative, given that the turnout rate in local elections usually hovers in the teens.

Hutchinson is right about our local politics being polarized. Changing that is going to require bringing more reasonable voices of all political persuasions into the conservation.

Even if we don't agree, we should at least be civil about it.

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