WILLMAR — The joint powers board of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission split 4-2 last week on a vote to retain the EDC’s membership in the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
Support for continuing chamber membership prevailed, but not without heated discussion over whether it’s appropriate for a public entity to belong to what board member Ron Christianson called “basically a lobbyist group.”
“It isn’t right,” Christianson said.
He and Steve Ahmann, who are both on the Willmar City Council, cast the two votes against EDC membership in the Chamber of Commerce. Denis Anderson of the Willmar City Council, and Kandiyohi County Commissioners Jim Butterfield, Harlan Madsen and Bruce Shuck voted in favor.
The debate by the joint powers board marked the latest episode in a long-simmering disagreement over whether local units of government should be Chamber of Commerce members. Most of the city departments — Willmar Municipal Utilities, Rice Memorial Hospital and the Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority among them — have already voted to keep their chamber memberships, saying they derive services and benefits from belonging to the Chamber of Commerce.
Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, recommended that the EDC continue its chamber membership, saying it’s money that is “well-spent.”
Although the chamber does play a role as the voice of the local business community and sometimes engages in lobbying, “I think they do way much more than that. ... The money they collect from dues allows them to do even more with their programs and their budget.”
It’s an advantage to the EDC to belong, agreed Denis Anderson, chairman of the joint powers board.
“I do see a benefit, especially for the EDC,” he said. “It’s perfectly appropriate that we belong as the Economic Development Commission.”
Ahmann and Christianson disagreed, reiterating the same concerns that were raised in earlier debates about the issue.
“I think it’s unethical that we should even be discussing this,” Ahmann said.
The main role of the Chamber of Commerce is to create policy, he argued. “We’re here to work with any business person, any time. That’s our job, to stimulate business. We shouldn’t have to pay (the chamber) to get their input.”
When public entities spend money on membership dues to the Chamber of Commerce, “the taxpayers are paying for the operation of a special interest group,” he said.
Ahmann said many of his constituents, some of whom are Chamber of Commerce members, hold the same position. “This isn’t just my opinion,” he said.