The Chamber of Commerce 1986-2015
Private Power Hegemon Lorded Public Policy
For 29 Years in Emeryville
Private Power Hegemon Lorded Public Policy
For 29 Years in Emeryville
Last month, the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, a private company, finally packed it in and closed up shop for good after a storied and controversial 29 year run representing business interests at City Hall out of their publicly funded Harlan Street storefront headquarters. The end for the business lobbying group has been a long time coming and last month's closure of the organization's website was really just a formality, a final turning off of the lights and the shutting of the door for the once powerful and hegemonic private controller of City Hall.
Although it has been out of power for some time and it hasn't been in the news of late, back in the day, the Chamber ruled this city; its vision for Emeryville carried out to a 'T' by a compliant City Council majority it hand selected and funded via its own political action committee, EmPAC. So complete was the Chamber's power in its hay day, virtually the entire cityscape as one sees it now is attributable in one way or another to this private organization, it's political power and its non-democratically elected Board of Directors directing the decision makers at City Hall to make the town as they saw fit. The story of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, its rise and its fall from power over the last thirty years is synonymous with the story of Emeryville over the last thirty years. For better or for worse, the Chamber's history is our history.
The Salad Days
And what a history it's been; at its peak the Chamber got its agenda taken up at private closed door regularly scheduled weekly meetings with our City Manager. The content of these meetings at the people's hall were never made public and the pubic was decidedly not allowed in. The Chamber enjoyed a great deal of public largess showered upon it from the City Council including perpetual free rent in the City owned storefront on Harlan Street, and a $40,000 yearly stipend paid by the taxpayers to produce the the Chamber's glossy newsletter and pay office staff. In addition to pushing the Chamber's agenda, the newsletter, sent to every Emeryville household, was used to elect the Chamber's Council members and push back against the odd Council member not toting the Chamber's line. The Chamber years were the go-go years for developers in our town and the Chamber's philosophy of putting the developers in the driver's seat by directing the City Council to never say NO to any proposed development, brought us the built city we have today.
But now Emeryville moves forward, without a central organizing business advocate at the helm. A different city with different values and a different built environment is likely to be the result.
With the demise of the Chamber of Commerce, the business community in Emeryville is not left unrepresented by lobbyists it should be noted. As the Chamber's star began to fall, local businesses swapped out the Chamber for a host of other business lobbying firms around the region; notably the California Association of Realtors, the California Restaurant Association, the Bay Area Council and others. Those who may worry that business won't get a fair hearing can rest at ease however because business lobbying continues, unabated in City Hall, with or without the Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber Is Born
The Emeryville Chamber of Commerce started when a local businessman, Ken Bukowski, found himself aced out of the sole business lobbying group in Emeryville at the time, the Emeryville Industries Association. "The Industries Association was an old boys network for big business" Mr Bukowski told the Tattler. "If they didn't like you, you were out, also I ran a small business, not something they were very interested in" added Mr Bukowski, who later went on to become a long time Emeryville City Councilman. The powerful Industries Association was allied with then Police Chief John LaCoste, a corrupt patronage machine boss who ran Emeryville like Tammany Hall and the Association was not adverse to using their might to run over opposition Council candidates. Bukowski said he thought a business advocacy group shouldn't be so exclusive and shouldn't operate in such an overtly political manner and after the Industries Association ran a major hit piece against such an opposing Council member, Stuart Flashman in special election, Ken decided to start his own business advocacy group. "They called Stuart a Berkeley radical leftist and they helped tip the scales for a LaCoste candidate Tom Fox, who ended up beating Flashman by 13 votes" Mr Bukowski said.
Ken's group, the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, let anyone join, the mirror opposite of the exclusive Emeryville Industries Association, "I imagined it to be for businesses large and small and also for Emeryville residents. I saw it as an opportunity to bring the business community and the residents together" he said of the fledgling Chamber. Ken himself won a City Council seat in 1987, after which he resigned from the Chamber Board. In what must have been a moment of schadenfreude for Councilman Bukowski, the rise of the new and popular Chamber of Commerce meant the demise of the old Industries Association; they folded and were never heard from again.
Meet The New Boss
Local political consultant and power broker John Gooding took over at the Chamber with Councilman Bukowski's resignation and took action to change the group to something more resembling the Industries Association, "The first thing Gooding did was re-write the Chamber's Mission Statement getting rid of the residents" Mr Bukowski said. "He got the City to start supporting the Chamber and they lost all independence." The City was running the powerful Redevelopment Agency and the Chamber was plugged into that, Mr Bukowski noted. "They [the Chamber] pretty much stopped representing small businesses after that. They started charging much higher fees at Chamber mixers, acing out Emeryville's small businesses" he said.
After the Chamber hitched its wagon to the City, the end was only a matter of time as it turned out. First the Redevelopment Agency was taken down by a mandate from Governor Jerry Brown who said these RDA's across the State had moved beyond their initial useful role and had become huge boondoggles who's real purpose was to funnel money to connected developers. The ending of the Emeryville RDA was a major blow to the Chamber.
Enter the Emeryville Tattler
The Chamber newsletter promoting candidates and Measures while tearing down others all on the public dime (rather $40,000) was a bridge too far for the Tattler. We did several stories and editorials on this unethical corruption of the public interest. The stories resonated with the public and the Council came under pressure to delete the newsletter funding which they finally did. The City started its own electronic newsletter except they have omitted the overt politicking of the Chamber newsletter. Chamber insiders have noted the demise of the newsletter quickened the demise of the Chamber.
After the loss of the Emeryville RDA and the funding of its newsletter, what followed was devastating for the Chamber; the election of a new progressive City Council majority and the rise of the citizen's activist group Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE). Shortly after the November 2014 election, the new Council majority took action to end the Chamber's free money gravy train from City Hall. The private business would have to sink or swim on its own. Shortly after, Chamber CEO and president Bob Canter, a Martinez resident, folded his tent and decamped to Florida.
During its day the Chamber operated much like the earlier Emeryville Industries Association; they used their publicly funded newsletter to try to take down Council members they didn't like (Greg Harper, John Fricke, Shilen Patel among them) and support Council members they liked (Nora Davis, Kurt Brinkman, Dick Kassis and Ruth Atkin among them). They leveraged their City Council majority for support of favored developers and projects, they fought against City projects like Councilman Fricke's Adeline Street bike facilities (changing the street from four vehicle lanes to two lanes with bike lanes on the sides), they fought against Measure C (the Emeryville Living Wage for Hotel Workers). They also fought against removing Emeryville's notorious business tax cap, a regressive taxation that provides for Emeryville's largest businesses to pay taxes at a much lower rate than small businesses. They even used the taxpayer funded newsletter to urge passage of various California propositions, notably Proposition 16, a PG&E backed initiative that would have made it all but impossible for municipalities to fund their own power companies like neighboring Alameda Power and Light.
The Emeryville Chamber of Commerce may rise again someday, having sown the seeds of a rebirth. Virtually none of the new housing the Chamber fought for over the years is for families, a demographic arguably not amenable to the Chamber's vision of Emeryville, rather much of the new housing that has been built is generally for a more libertarian set; tech workers, a demographic much more naturally allied with the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce.