Council member says Chamber question is a long-standing issue for city of Willmar, Minn.
WILLMAR — Willmar City Council member Steve Ahmann says his concern over government entities spending tax dollars for membership in the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce goes back 20 years when he first served on the council from 1986 to 1994.
Ahmann, who returned to the council in 2008 and was re-elected in November to another four-year term, says his inquiry into city entities paying Chamber membership dues with tax dollars has nothing to do with what some believe is council retaliation for an email written by Chamber President Ken Warner that contained unflattering comments about some council members.
Ahmann also says his concern is not related to issues of council governance, micromanaging and dysfunction recently raised by the ad hoc Moving Willmar Forward group. Warner is a member of the 15-member group of business people and citizens.
“It came up many years ago before this,’’ Ahmann said in an interview Thursday. “This is an old issue. It’s purely by coincidence.’’
Ahmann said he raised the issue of the city paying dues to the Chamber in the early 1990s. He said he wanted to know why city government was paying dues to a special interest group for businesses — of which he, as a small businessman, was a member.
“Our city attorney, Rich Ronning, ruled it was not a public purpose,’’ Ahmann said. “The issue has always been there. I didn’t think it was right. I was told by the attorney general’s office that it was not a public purpose, that it was a misappropriation of city funds to pay dues to the Chamber of Commerce.’’
Ahmann says he knows people who are Chamber members. He said raising his concern could affect his home construction business and people could shun him. But he felt he had to raise the issue.
“I took an oath of office, so I have to do the right thing and I have to bring it forward. I’m just doing my job,’’ he said.
Ahmann raised his concern again at the Dec. 17 council meeting. He wanted to know, and wanted the council and Mayor Frank Yanish to know, how many other entities that are connected to the city or receive city funding or receive revenue from local tax levy dollars are paying dues to the Chamber and how the funds are appropriated.
“I’m not faulting anyone on this. The Chamber has a right to ask for the money. But the question is: whether or not it is a public purpose and whether or not the services that they are providing is a direct benefit to everybody in the city,’’ he said.
Ahmann said the Chamber is a special interest group.
“The Chamber is good for businesses and they benefit businesses. It should not be a controversial issue. It’s not a public purpose. It’s supporting the ongoing operations of the Chamber of Commerce with tax dollars,’’ Ahmann said.
Warner, in an interview, said he’s been with the Chamber for 22 years and to his knowledge the city has not been a dues-paying member during that time.
For the last 21 years, the city administrator had received a complimentary membership in exchange for a $1,000 annual payment to the Chamber’s Leadership Perspectives program. The Kandiyohi County administrator also received a complimentary membership in exchange for county participation in the program.
Warner said the former mayor would always use the list of Leadership Perspectives program graduates as a source to find people to serve on various commissions, committees and boards.
The council voted in December to eliminate funding for the Leadership Perspectives program in 2013.
Warner said the Willmar Municipal Utilities, Rice Hospital and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority are all members of the chamber.
Among the other entities over which Ahmann raised concerns, Chamber members include the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, Willmar Public Library, Kandiyohi Area Transit, Rice Home Medical, Rice Health Foundation, West Central Industries and Willmar Fests.
Warner said the Willmar Design Center and the West Central Integration Collaborative are not members.
Warner said both the Minnesota attorney general and attorneys for numerous cities in Minnesota have taken the position that a city (or county) may not be a chamber member or member of any other nonprofit corporation.
But Warner says this is not a universal conclusion. He said there is nothing to prevent a mayor or city government official from being a member in his or her personal capacity.
“While in my opinion, there is no law per se, the Minnesota attorney general’s opinion from 1949 that states that cities should probably not be members of a chamber of commerce is just gray enough that it gives both sides of the issue some wiggle room to say each is correct,’’ he said.