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Columbia Missourian

Columbia Chamber of Commerce endorsements cloaked in secrecy

By Patrick Sweet
March 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Business group declines to reveal members who selected City Council candidates to support

COLUMBIA – The Columbia Chamber of Commerce has nearly 1,170 members, but only six were involved in recommending which candidates the chamber would endorse in the City Council election.

Nobody wants to reveal who five of those six members were.

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For the first time in a history that spans more than 100 years, the chamber endorsed council candidates: Bob McDavid for mayor, Gary Kespohl for the Third Ward seat and Daryl Dudley for the Fourth Ward seat.

Not all the chamber's members feel they were represented, though, especially because the endorsement process happened behind closed doors.

Vicky Riback Wilson, a former state representative and now a fellowship coordinator for the MU Fellowship Office, had been a member of the chamber for more than 25 years. But she dropped her membership, she said, because the chamber was not transparent about the endorsement process.

On Jan. 15, the chamber's board of directors voted to "establish an Endorsement Task Force to review and make recommendations to the board of directors for possible endorsements in the upcoming April election," according to minutes of the meeting. Those minutes did not specify whether the vote was unanimous.

Chamber Chairman Byron Hill of ABC Labs appointed the six-member task force. Chamber board member Randy Coil of Coil Construction chaired it and thus far is the only publicly known member.

Chamber president Don Laird said Wednesday that members of the task force do not want to be known and that Coil would be the one to release any names. Coil, though, referred all comments to Laird.

"(Laird) is the mouthpiece for the chamber," Coil said Thursday. "I'm going to leave that up to Don on what he releases."

Laird later said it was up to the board of directors to allow him to release any information. The Missourian left multiple phone messages with several board members on Thursday but was able to talk with only two. Both Holly Bondurant and Paul Land declined to talk about the situation.

As part of the search for information regarding the task force, the Columbia Missourian requested meeting minutes from the chamber's December, January and February meetings. Chamber meeting minutes generally are not made available to the public.

The chamber, however, is considered a benevolent corporation because of its status as a 501c(6) tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation. Missouri Statute 352.100 requires that all benevolent corporations "shall keep a fair record of all its proceedings, which record shall be open, at all reasonable hours, to the inspection of all its members."

The Missourian is a member; the chamber released the minutes to Missourian General Manager Dan Potter on Thursday, and the newspaper plans to obtain the February meeting minutes after the board approves them at its Friday meeting.

The board voted to approve the Endorsement Task Force recommendations at its February meeting.

"To my knowledge, there were no nays," Laird said of the board's vote to endorse the slate identified by the task force.

Although the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the candidates, Laird said the chamber does not raise money for them.

That didn't stop former board member Tom Atkins and current board member Larry Moore from mailing letters — on plain paper — that tout the chamber's endorsements as a reason to donate to each candidate's campaign and to the campaign in favor of Proposition 1, which would authorize police use of video cameras downtown. The mailings included a return envelope for donations.

"Today, many of the attributes our city has enjoyed are at risk as a direct result of rising unemployment and challenging economic times," the letter reads. "That's why this year, for the first time in our history, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce has chosen to endorse candidates for mayor and the city council. It was not an action the Chamber Board of Directors took without considerable thought and preparation."

The letter is signed by 11 people with connections to the chamber and lists Atkins and Moore as the people who paid for it.

No public documents were used for this report. However, meeting minutes  were acquired through the Missourian's status as a member of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.