Chris Graham: Breaking down the Chamber controversy

Column by Chris Graham 

I know a lot of the behind-the-scenes details behind what we all see happening with the bad public breakup between the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce and its former president and CEO, Ben Carter. And from my vantagepoint, the public nature to the breakup that appears to be intensifying with the movement being led by people with partisan motivations who are good at drawing attention to themselves and their causes is not going to be good for anybody involved.

The morning papers in their Tuesday editions tracked down what a lot of us on the inside knew already – that the effort to overturn the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors’ decision to fire Carter is being led by local businessman and stalwart far-right conservative Republican Scott Sayre with some help from former Waynesboro City Councilman Reo Hatfield.

Officially, it’s Sayre who is organizing the meeting being held at the offices of Reo Distribution today to hear from Carter about his Jan. 28 dismissal, according to what Hatfield told the News Leader for a story in today’s print edition of the paper.

Or we could credit Carter himself, since the e-mail inviting people to the meeting came from his personal e-mail account, while referring to Carter awkwardly in the third person.

Whoever wants to take credit for getting things organized, it seems clear what is going on here. Carter was a lightning rod in his tenure as Chamber president and CEO, pushing the organization into territory uncomfortable for some members, including me as co-owner of Augusta Free Press Publishing, which decided against renewing our membership in 2009 in protest of the direction being taken by the Chamber under Carter on local, state and national political matters.

Carter had the local Chamber out ahead of many members on labor-union reform legislation now stalled in Congress. More unsettling was the stance on a purely local issue involving a proposed fee structure to pay for stormwater-system improvements in Waynesboro that the Chamber under Carter was able to derail to the detriment of Waynesboro residents who are yet a big rain event away from being flooded again because of continuing capacity issues in the stormwater system.

The general thrust of the Chamber’s involvement in the Carter years was to the benefit of partisan Republican causes both locally and otherwise. The push on stormwater played into a key issue in the 2008 City Council elections in Waynesboro. (You might remember my candidacy in that election cycle. And a last-minute endorsement for my conservative opponent from Invista, which with Carter was involved in the push against the stormwater-fee program.) The issue with labor reform is also partisan, and the Chamber’s role in fueling the partisan flames, in the form of putting out one-sided issue statements, was a sort of last straw for us as far as our continued involvement in the Chamber was concerned.

Now back in the Chamber as members, I’ve spoken with members of the Board and staff and several rank-and-file Chamber members about the direction that we want to see the Chamber move in for the future. The one thing I’ve had expressed to me repeatedly is, Balance.

I’ve been pulled in to serve on the newly reformed Chamber government-relations committee, for example. The emphasis from the outset there is on repurposing the committee from its role in the Carter years as a resource for partisan advocacy into being an information resource for members. Among the focal points: retooling the outdated Chamber website to provide easy access points to local, state, regional and national business news and the local business community, scheduling meetings with state and federal lawmakers to hear from them about what they’re doing in Richmond and Washington and giving members a chance to offer feedback and direction, and recruiting members to attend local city council and board of supervisors meetings to both show the Chamber flag to local elected officials and to be able to report back to the membership on what is being done in the business arena at the local level.

It’s not hard to figure out why there might be blowback from the likes of Scott Sayre and Reo Hatfield given this new direction. The local Chamber under Carter’s leadership provided a kitty of money in the form of dues from its member businesses that could be used to further a partisan political cause, and now that kitty of money is being repurposed.

In a sense, I can’t blame Sayre and Hatfield and the cabal of fellow travelers who have gotten themselves in a lather on this for reacting the way they have. You get to have your cake and eat it, too, and then somebody takes the cake away, and see how you act.

Now we come back to the difficult part of this story. I’ve been briefed extensively on what has transpired between the Chamber and Carter. The dismissal wasn’t done for political reasons, or even for reasons that I would think would be perfectly legitimate in the area of the Board coming to the conclusion that, Hey, we just need to make a change.

Me, I can’t imagine that I’d risk having the details released publicly, but what we’re seeing unfold here reminds me of the brinksmanship that we saw the superpowers repeatedly engage in during the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR never actually used their nuclear weapons against the other, though I hasten to point out that neither has unilaterally disarmed all these many years (and one failed state) later.

On the surface, Carter, Sayre, Hatfield and their fellow travelers seem content to push the Chamber to the brink, though for what I cannot imagine. I don’t know that any reasonable person can foresee any scenario that involves the return of Carter as president and CEO of the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce.

So where is this headed, then? It’s a good question. Maybe the Sayre-Hatfield-Carter troika splinters off to try to form its own Chamber-like business-advocacy group. I could see that happening, though I doubt it would last more than a few months or a year at the most, specifically because the group would be more radioactive than spent plutonium. More likely, I think, we’ll see more of what we saw back in 2007 when Sayre challenged Emmett Hanger for the local Republican State Senate nomination, and spent buckets of money trying to paint the conservative Hanger as a serial tax-and-spender, utlimately to his own disadvantage when the seemingly endless TV ads aimed at conservatives also motivated moderates and independents to go to the polls to send Hanger back to Richmond.

Whch is to say, I see in the end this being a big to-do about nothing, but in the meantime, it’s going to be tense at the big Chamber hoo-ha we have coming up in a couple of weeks and the next couple Business at Breakfasts.

Hopefully in the end we can get things back on track and get our focus back to where it needs to be – on continued efforts to make sure that Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro is open for business and for business opportunity and growth.

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