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Beverly Hills Seeks Study on Separation of Chamber, Bureau

January 24, 1985|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

The Beverly Hills City Council has asked for a study to determine whether the city's Visitors Bureau should be separated from the Chamber of Commerce.

The council, concerned by bookkeeping and management problems at the chamber, asked for the study Tuesday.

The bureau is a division of the chamber. Last year, the city paid the bureau $300,000 to promote Beverly Hills internationally as a place for shopping and small conventions.

At issue in Tuesday's discussion was the use of taxpayers' money. Some council members indicated that they were afraid that money earmarked for the Visitors Bureau was going to other chamber activities.

The chamber two years ago promised the city that it would operate the bureau independently of the chamber, with its own bank accounts, staff and executive committee.

"To use the term independent is wrong," Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro said Tuesday. "Let's call a spade a spade. It is part of the chamber."

Spadaro said that although she saw nothing wrong with chamber involvement in politics, she could not "sanction using taxpayers' dollars to support your (chamber) political activities."

Councilman Edward Brown, who said "the chamber should be a very important political force in the city," added that the two bodies should be run independently.

But Mike Sims, the chamber's executive director, said that the Visitors Bureau should remain under chamber control.

"We've been financially and legally responsible" for the bureau for more than 20 years, he told the council, though he proposed several administrative changes in an effort to ease council concern.

The possible separation of the bureau and the chamber has been discussed for months. Last year, city officials became concerned that the chamber was double billing the city for expenses. A financial review by Arthur Young & Co. cleared the chamber of the double-billing charge, but uncovered what city and chamber officials described as a pattern of "sloppy bookkeeping."

The controversy over the bureau worsened when the director of the Chamber of Commerce was fired last August. Last week, the head of the Visitors Bureau, Catherine Sawelson, resigned.

Sawelson said in a recent interview that she quit because the chamber was becoming too involved in the operation of the Visitors Bureau.

"In spite of all attempts to gain independence, the bureau continued to function simply as a division of the Chamber of Commerce," she said. ". . . . We sold the city a bill of goods."

The city has contributed almost $3 million to the Visitors Bureau since it was founded more than 20 years ago. During the last six months of 1984, the city paid $150,000 to operate the program, although it never received a full accounting of the 1983 budget. The city does receive monthly reports on spending.

Sims said separating the Visitors Bureau from the chamber would result in "competing" organizations. "Instead of pulling away we ought to be concentrating on how to fine tune it," he said.

Sims recommended increasing the size of the Visitors Bureau's executive committee to seven members. He said the president of the chamber would appoint five members from the city's hotel and retail interests and the mayor would appoint two--a city official and a resident.

Councilman Benjamin Stansbury said he was not concerned by the possibility of competition. He also said he was against allowing the chamber president to appoint members to the Visitors Bureau board.

City officials and chamber representatives will do the study and hope to complete it in a matter of months. An outside consultant may be brought in.

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