Grass Valley Chamber’s hiring of Miller’s campaign manager raises concerns about nonpartisanship, transparency

We belong to the Truckee and Nevada City Chambers of Commerce. We also are associate members of the Grass Valley Downtown Association. We appreciate their professionalism, active role as business advocates, transparency and nonpartisanship.

This week we were glad to see the Auburn Chamber of Commerce hire a new CEO, but most of all spell out the transparency of the selection process: “Twenty-four candidates from both the Auburn area and outside the region applied for the CEO position. The selection team narrowed the pool through an extensive review process. The process consisted of a phone interview, written interview and concluded with a series of oral panel interviews led by business leaders.”

We firmly believe that Chambers need to stay out of small-town politics. Many of them are very clear about this. Here’s an example from the Annapolis, Md., Chamber: “The Chamber of Commerce is nonpartisan in its approach, and does not endorse or oppose legislation based upon political party philosophies or political party sponsorship. Nor does the Chamber of Commerce endorse or support candidates for public office.”

One reason to steer clear of politics is conflict of interest — real or perceived. Many of the Chambers still receive taxpayer funds to operate — the Greater Grass Valley Chamber is one of them. Wearing his “mayor’s hat,” Dan Miller and the rest of the Council voted to fund the Chamber with money ($30K per year over two years) from the City of Grass Valley.

When they receive public money, Chambers particularly have a fiduciary duty to represent all points of view, not just “like-minded” ones.

As a result, I was troubled to see the Greater Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce — whose co-CEO Keith Davies already has cited Miller as a “good friend since high school,” as he put it — now hire Miller’s campaign manager Yolanda Cookson as its new executive assistant and “membership retention manager.”

It came during the height of the election season.

Miller is in a heated race against incumbent Terry Lamphier for District 3 supervisor. In addition, Patti Ingram, who was instrumental in a recent restructuring of the Chamber that put Davies in charge, is actively supporting Miller for Supervisor.

In January 2013, I asked: “‘New’ Grass Valley Chamber; really just the ‘old guard’ GV political machine?” At the time, I speculated: “Some people think there’s a political agenda in play: to build a base that includes getting Dan Miller elected to the county board of supervisors, replacing Terry Lamphier. Terry’s upset of John Spencer (Patti’s husband) did not sit well with the ‘old guard’ politicos.”

Well, here we are a year later, and now Miller’s campaign manager has joined the Chamber’s staff.

MORE TRANSPARANCY

I’ve heard of “all in the family,” but this is too much political togetherness for me, especially for a nonpartisan organization that receives public funds.

•The Grass Valley Chamber’s press release about its new hire omitted Yolanda’s role as Miller’s campaign manager. It should have included it.

•It also should have discussed the hiring process for both Yolanda and Keith Davies for that matter — exactly as the Auburn Chamber of Commerce did this week.

•And the Grass Valley Chamber also should have spelled out what policies it has in place to address its member’s and the community’s concerns about perceived conflicts.

The community is not naive or ignorant. As outfits such as YubaNet noted when republishing the press release: “Editor’s note: Per the latest campaign finance filing available, Yolanda Cookson is also Dan Miller’s campaign manager in his 2014 campaign to become District 3 Supervisor.”

The Union also mentioned her role as Miller’s campaign manager in its story, where Yolanda added: “I believe in him,” referring to Miller.

The rumor of Yolanda’s hire began to leak out in the community last week, and this issue of her role in Miller’s campaign immediately came up.

To be sure, Yolanda Cookson is a professional, and she is qualified for this job. I like her. She has a wonderful family. We’re friends: or have been (LOL). And I passionately support working families in our community.

But I’m hoping she understand the concerns and discusses Dan’s campaign outside the doors of the Chamber office and new Visitors Center — and doesn’t react defensively. There need to be some real boundaries.

Most of all the Chamber executive team and board need to be aware of the community’s concerns. And so does Dan Miller.

As I’ve stated before, we’ve held off on joining the Grass Valley Chamber, largely out of the transparency concerns expressed here. We have not experienced any of this in our Chamber memberships in Truckee or Nevada City.

The Grass Valley Chamber is not alone. I was also concerned to see the Penn Valley Chamber send out an “eblast” inviting its members to a political fundraising event for Hank Weston at the Nevada County Contractor’s Association. The details are here.

SIMILAR CONCERNS ON DORSEY DRIVE

A similar issue was raised only last week — whether Grass Valley was transparent enough about the reasons for the Dorsey Drive Interchange. Was it meant for easy access to the hospital or Sierra College — or to facilitate for a newly proposed “lifestyle” center?

The response was a highly defensive one — but it should have been an introspective one — just like this issue.

In both cases, the issue is one of trust — between elected and civic leaders, and their constituents. And some people in Grass Valley have to work harder to build community trust, rather than become defensive about it.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

2 thoughts on “Grass Valley Chamber’s hiring of Miller’s campaign manager raises concerns about nonpartisanship, transparency”

  1. The national Chamber of Commerce is the biggest conservative dark money funnel and shill for large corporations on the planet. It should come as no surprise that some local chambers function politically in a similar manner. They believe that it is in their own best interests. It is, therefore, also no surprise that “pro-growth” business advocates would want to populate organizations like the C of C to maximize their influence and incomes. Having said that, any organization that receives taxpayer dollars is duty bound to represent all of the taxpayers’ interests not just those engaged in the business sectors. The simple solution is to remove the facade. Take away taxpayer generated funding and let business community donations/dues totally fund the chamber. Then the members/board/etc. can publicly support whomever and whatever they want politically. At least, then, the politics will be up front for the public to see.

  2. Seems Miller “controls/influences not only the Chamber but also N.C.T.V., another non profit that
    I understand is also taking on Chamber people to staff N.C.T.V. Miller also thinks Government grant money is free (as stated by him at the N.C.Tea Party candidates night) I hope Dist. 3 voters see thru all this and keep Lamphier.

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