Fearful that the Chamber of Commerce is becoming a political arm of Disney, Anaheim Councilwoman Lorri Galloway is calling for the city to pull the business group's funding in response to its lead role in helping Disney fight City Hall on a hot-button zoning issue.
The chamber is organizing two Disney-backed ballot measures, an initiative and a referendum, aimed at preserving nonresidential zoning in the area surrounding the company's theme parks.
"We're giving them up to $200,000 a year to promote and work with Anaheim's businesses, not to do referendums against the city," the councilwoman said. "The chamber is supposed to be promoting businesses, not pitting them against each other. Why should we give them one dime?"
The chamber's role in Anaheim's yearlong, high-profile squabble with Disney is not unusual, according to one longtime observer of Orange County politics.
"Chambers don't operate on the principles of unanimity," UC Irvine political scientist Mark Petracca said. "They promote business for themselves. There are probably numerous situations where chambers end up pitting one business against another.
"In Irvine, virtually every major land development issue has involved a position taken by the chamber."
Petracca said he wasn't surprised to see the chamber take the side of Disney, the city's largest employer and main economic engine.
"I'm sure in the chamber's view, what's good for Disney is good for Anaheim," he said. "If the chamber in Anaheim is not completely controlled by Disney, it's strongly influenced by Disney."
In November, the chamber's 41-member board voted overwhelmingly to take Disney's side in the housing dispute. The group's website lists "political action" and "represent business interests in government" as two of the chamber's five initiatives. Last year, the chamber helped promote Measure M, the county's sales tax for transportation projects.
"Our contract doesn't preclude us from taking positions contrary to the positions of elected officials," said Todd Ament, a chamber member and co-chairman of Save Our Anaheim Resort District, which is pushing the measures.
"If we're at odds over an issue," Ament said, "city officials can choose not to fund us if they don't see the value in it. But we're here to protect our business community's interests. I've never seen our members so rallied behind a singular issue."
The chamber received $205,000 from the city this year, about 9% of the group's annual budget.
"If they choose to pull funding," Ament said, "the potential is that some of the services to help grow businesses and attract other businesses could be reduced because of one issue."
Galloway said she had a particular problem with the chamber's recent involvement in a referendum campaign that would reverse last week's 3-2 City Council vote paving the way for a 1,500-unit condo-apartment development across the street from where Disney wants to build a third park. Ament said Friday that more than 100 chamber members would be collecting signatures in the campaign. The other initiative that Disney backs would prohibit any residential development in the resort district unless approved in a citywide vote.
"If chamber businesses choose to rally against the City Council's action," Galloway said, "they need to fund it themselves. It's a no-brainer."
Ament has voiced his opposition to the housing project at several council meetings and news conferences. He recently called the council's action to allow condos and low-cost apartments "an ill-advised move and a dangerous precedent."
"The resort district is the largest single source of tax revenue for city service," he said. "It's unimaginable that the city would jeopardize the future of that revenue and the character of this world-class resort area."
Councilman Harry Sidhu, who also opposes the housing project, said he wasn't bothered that the chamber had taken a strong position in support of the two initiatives.
"The chamber is doing what it's supposed to do," he said. "They are protecting the interests of the businesses in the city, so the revenue keeps coming into the city."
Galloway said she was trying to rally council support for a vote that would nullify the city's funding contract with the chamber. It is unclear whether she has it. Councilwoman Lucille Kring called the chamber's recent political stance on the initiatives "strange" and "surprising" but said she needed to learn more before joining Galloway.
"I can understand the chamber taking a position on issues," Kring said, "but I don't remember them taking this aggressive of a stance on anything."