City Withdraws from Chamber of Commerce, Protesting Attack Campaign

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, 11:22 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

East Lansing’s City Council voted tonight to withdraw from the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, naming as the reason the attack mailers put out by the Chamber against Councilmember Erik Altmann during the election.

Following a lively discussion of what the Chamber had done and what Council should do in response, the Council unanimously rejected a strongly-worded draft resolution penned earlier by Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier. Instead they unanimously followed Councilmember Shanna Draheim’s call to become “role models for more positive behavior” by passing a shorter, less condemnatory oral resolution, but one achieving essentially the same end.

In Council’s discussion, Beier called the Chamber’s mailers attacking Altmann “incorrect, misleading, insulting, and irritating.” She said that in response, she had asked the City Manager to report on what the City gets out of its Chamber membership, and that the answer was essentially “not much.”

Responding to Beier’s remarks, Draheim suggested the matter be dealt with next year, during budget discussions, saying a “clear signal” could be sent at that time that the City does not want to be affiliated with the Chamber both because of the mailers and because of the lack of value of membership. Draheim said, it would be “small, petty, and beneath us” to use Beier’s draft resolution and to immediately withdraw using it. She asked Council not to “throw fuel on the fire” and to not continue “to play this negativity” that she said was beneath civil leaders.

Mayor Mark Meadows read into a record the formal statement received from Steve Japinga, Director of Government Relations for the Chamber. Meadows said he had received essentially the same statement from Tim Daman, CEO of the Chamber. The Chamber’s statement called on East Lansing to stay in the Chamber, saying that it was important to economic growth and business success.

The Chamber statement also said that no membership dollars were used for the “educational mailers” against Altmann—that all the money came from “corporate dollars.” The Chamber statement also said that East Lansing would be sending a message that “business is not welcome in East Lansing” if they passed Beier’s resolution and withdrew.

After he finished reading the Chamber’s statement, Meadows roundly rejected the Chamber’s stance, saying that the distinction the Chamber’s staff drew between membership dollars and corporate dollars indicated to Meadows “something more deeply wrong” with what happened. He said using special corporate dollars was “much worse, frankly” than using membership dollars.

Meadows noted there is no legal way for the City Council to find out which corporations paid for the mailers. He said he did not see how the City of East Lansing could go forward as a member of the Chamber. Cooperation in projects between the Chamber and the City is still possible, according to Meadows, particularly if such partnership will improve the lives of residents of East Lansing and the business atmosphere in the City. But he supported withdrawal on the basis of sending a message “that negative campaigning and corporate dollars that can’t be traced” are not welcome in East Lansing.

Draheim said she was “not trying to minimize” what had happened to Altmann, but said she did not “feel a sense of immediacy that we do this now.” She added that she was “certainly not comfortable with the resolution as written.” She said it had inappropriate “grandeur” and needed fact-checking that hadn’t occurred.

Councilmember Susan Woods suggested the Council move forward not with Beier’s resolution but with a public statement that the City is withdrawing from the Council because of the negative campaigning. Beier accepted her suggestion, and Draheim offered some wording for it.

The resolution which ultimately passed, 5-0, directs the City Manager to withdraw the City immediately from membership in the Chamber because the Chamber “recently engaged in negative campaigning which City Council does not believe reflects well on the Chamber or the membership.” The resolution also says that the City will continue to support East Lansing businesses.

In closing remarks on the matter, Draheim said that if the City were to disavow the Chamber in the fashion suggested by Beier, the Council would have to criticize every person who came to the podium at City Council meetings to speak negatively. Beier disagreed, saying there is a marked difference between a citizen making a negative remark at the podium and the Chamber of Commerce “sending $25,000 of that [kind of mailer] to my house.”

But Beier thanked Woods and Draheim for the compromise solution, and said she was pleased that in the first controversial matter before this new Council, they had reached a compromise which all five members could support.