By Robert Plain – Ashland Daily Tidings
Three city councilors have requested more information from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce concerning how it spent a $242,000 grant from the city this year.
David Chapman, Jack Hardesty and Cate Hartzell co-authored a memo asking for more accountability and oversight into how the chamber spends this annual grant allotment generated from the hotel/motel tax.
“The chamber is getting a quarter of a million dollars from us and we have no idea what is happening with that money,” Hardesty said. “These questions should have been asked a long time ago. We want a full report. When we get a report and flush out the specifics, we’ll go from there.”
In 2004, when the last city council awarded the grant to the chamber, it required them to detail how $160,000 of it would be spent to promote economic sustainability.
However, the three councilors said a report filed by the chamber several months later was too vague to glean what had been done toward this cause.
“We never felt like the reports we got back helped all of us grow in our understanding of our economic development needs in town,” Hartzell said. “We’re asking for additional information that is referenced in the report but not provided.”
Sandra Slattery, the executive director of the chamber, and Graham Lewis, its current president, both said they have already complied with the council’s initial request for information.
“All of the data is in the current report,” Slattery said, referring to the executive summary the chamber gave to the council in March. Lewis added, “If they want more information, they can ask for it with the next grant.”
The memo asks the chamber to provide its 2004 tax return form, which every entity that receives a grant from the city — aside from the chamber and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — has to provide.
It also asks for a listing of the accomplishments of the Economic Sustainibility Committee of the chamber and a detailed accounting of postal, office and Web site expenses, among other things. In all, 26 pieces of information were requested relating to the Economic and Cultural Development money.
Slattery said the ESC meets once a month, but minutes are not taken. She said it would not be practical to make these meetings open to the public because of the sensitive nature of private business information.
She said the chamber spent $14,000 for a new Web site, which will be unveiled in early 2006, and $11,000 on two computers, two printers and some software but she did not have the exact breakdown readily available.
“The chamber has a long-standing cooperative relationship with the city in promoting economic sustainability that we are very proud of,” she said.
Slattery and Lewis said economic diversity and attracting new businesses to come to Ashland is handled by the chamber’s ESC and Rapid Response Team. Neither could immediately identify one business interested in relocating to Ashland that has come before that committee this year.
Hartzell said she would like to see that committee extended beyond the just the chamber.
“The number of people who have been involved in that dialogue has been limited,” she said. “I’m pleased they initiated it and confident they have done good work but we don’t know how many businesses are inquiring about locating here, what their difficulties are and what do we have to offer them that is unique to Ashland.”
Councilor Russ Silbiger said he supports the idea of getting more information from the chamber. He said when he was on the Ashland Budget Committee he requested that the chamber supply their 990 tax form but, he said, they declined his request.
Hardesty, Chapman and Hartzell are “asking for a good amount of information, but [the chamber is] getting a good amount of money,” he said.
Both he and Hardesty said they would like to look into the feasibility of putting the work the chamber does on behalf of the city into a request for proposals, the normal way the city contracts for services. Hardesty said the same work might be accomplished more efficiently by a private public relations firm.
Councilor Alex Amarotico said he is supportive of getting additional information from the chamber, but not retroactively as is the case with the memo’s request. He said, “It is important to show accountability but a long list like this is a little demeaning to the organization they’re requesting it of.”
He said he is “frustrated” by the retroactive request for the information.
Councilor Kate Jackson and Mayor John Morrison could not be reached for comment.
Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg said in an e-mail to the council that he would notify both the chamber and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that there would be “a potential delay in discussing this year’s contract.”
He said the issue would be scheduled for the council to discuss in January.
Slattery said the grant the chamber receives from the city accounts for about 35 percent of its annual budget. She said the remainder comes from advertisements in chamber publications and dues from its 650 members.