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Chamber of 2nd Thoughts

March 30, 2003

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

The San Clemente Chamber of Commerce raided its general fund to pour nearly $80,000 into an affiliated political action committee that played an active role in last November's City Council election. Civic booster groups, of course, are free to create PACs that support candidates who are seen as friendly to business. That's the American way.

Trouble is, the chamber has benefited from $40,000 in city grants, staff services provided by City Hall, police assistance at chamber events and favorable terms on a city-owned office building. That means the city's largess was one reason the chamber had $80,000 in loose change to toss into its PAC.

One possible interpretation of the chamber's move is that $100 in annual rent for a 2,250-square-foot office in downtown San Clemente, thousands in grant money to help boost the city's image and use of the City Hall copying machine isn't enough. Why else would the chamber write a check that its PAC used to try and unseat one council member and get two others reelected?

The San Clemente chamber should have followed in the footsteps of other Orange County civic booster organizations that require their PACs to raise money independently. That spares bruised feelings among members who don't want their dues going into political campaigns and eliminates the problem of angry council members cutting off future funds for the civic organization.

San Clemente's City Council has good reason to start charging the chamber market rent for the office space, eliminate grants and collect fees for services delivered. As Mayor Stephanie Dorey said, "If they have enough money to spend almost $80,000 on a political campaign, I don't feel they need to be taking handouts from the city."

San Clemente isn't alone in feeling the double edge of the sword created when government ventures into the risky business of funding private enterprise. Investigators allege that the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which issues film permits for the city and county of Los Angeles, used public funding to help finance the political campaigns of its board members.

Local governments often share the same goals as the quasi-public booster organizations. And most voters would agree that working to strengthen the local economy is a good thing. But governments can't allow taxpayer funds to pay for political campaigns -- either directly, as apparently happened in Los Angeles, or indirectly, as was the case in San Clemente.

The San Clemente chamber seems to acknowledge the error of its ways, and the mayor is pledging to reconsider whether the chamber should continue to get city funds.

Other than a big headache, what did the chamber get for the $80,000? Only one of the two incumbents was reelected. The candidate whom the PAC opposed as unfriendly to business was reelected and -- no surprise here -- wants to stop the chamber's free ride. Let's hope other organizations learn something from this mess.

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