Council calls for chamber accountability

By Robert Plain – Ashland Daily Tidings

Every year the city of Ashland awards the Ashland Chamber of Commerce approximately $200,000 to promote both tourism and economic development locally. Though the Ashland City Council decided, at their Tuesday night meeting, to start dispersing this year’s allotment of $220,000, councilors held up the official approval of the contract until they can engage the chamber in a conversation about how the funds are being spent.

“I seem to recall in January we said we were going to have a discussion refining what we are asking for in terms of the chamber,” Councilor Russ Silbiger said. “As an example it’s been a goal of ours to develop an economic development plan. I would like to see the chamber dedicate some of its money towards our economic development plan.”

Graham Lewis, president of the chamber of commerce, said they would like to be involved in creating an economic development plan for the city. He suggested creating a committee of private citizens and public officials to spearhead these efforts.

Through money generated through a hotel/motel tax, Ashland gives the chamber of commerce $160,000 for economic development projects and $80,432 to promote tourism. Councilors said they are not trying to cut this funding, but would like to have a better idea of how it is being spent.

“It’s incumbent on both parties to come together,” Councilor Cate Hartzell said. “I want to make sure we are clear on what our expectations are.”

But Councilor Kate Jackson disagreed, saying it is now too late in this year’s process to engage the chamber in a dialogue about how the money is being spent. She said the chamber should not be punished for the city’s inability to address the matter in a timely fashion, citing the annual budget process and the recent unrest with RVTD as issues that have contributed to the delay.

“I don’t feel it’s appropriate in our relationship with the chamber to revise our contract this year,” she said. “It’s our fault. I’m very reluctant to keep piling things on to the finance department. We can’t have all of our goals met simultaneously.”

Silbiger and Hartzell said they are not looking to make big changes to the contract, but wanted to use the contract approval as an opportunity to engage the chamber of commerce in formal discussions now while they have their attention.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said, “I do think it would be a good idea to talk about performance standards.”

She said it will be put on the council’s agenda for either the Aug. 15 or Sept. 4 meeting.

In December, councilors Hartzell, David Chapman and the late Jack Hardesty wrote a memo asking for more accountability and oversight into how the chamber spends this annual allotment.

“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 at the time. “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.”

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Hartzell said she was surprised this issue ended up on the consent agenda, where matters are often approved without discussion, after the council requested further information and dialogue in both December and January.

The council also held off on awarding a $110,000 to promote tourism so that some missing information can be added, though as with the chamber they agreed to begin dispersing the money.

“The language we use for living wage [stipulations] doesn’t require any reporting,” Hartzell said. “We leave it up to the honor system.”

Bennett said legal staff can adjust the OSF contract to include this provision, as well as others, and have this contract ready for council approval in the near future.

Staff writer Robert Plain can be reached at 482-3456 x. 226 or bplain@dailytidings.com.

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