On the attack

Gilroy
 – Activist Chris Coté says his latest push to have the Gilroy
Chamber of Commerce open up its political endorsement committee to
a member of the Hispanic Chamber was a friendly suggestion aimed at
ensuring diversity. Chamber officials see it as a political attack
designed to embarrass them into
giving up political endorsements all together.
Gilroy – Activist Chris Coté says his latest push to have the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce open up its political endorsement committee to a member of the Hispanic Chamber was a friendly suggestion aimed at ensuring diversity. Chamber officials see it as a political attack designed to embarrass them into giving up political endorsements all together.

“You had somebody come in with an agenda, which was not to have something passed, but to embarrass,” said Tim Day, president of the chamber’s board of directors. “The motion was not passable …But this is going to come out that we’re anti-Hispanic.”

Coté, who represents CALSTAR on the chamber, responded: “I don’t believe that anybody at the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce is racist. I believe that they’re not allowing there to be participation by all chamber members. I think that that is a fatal flaw, but I never accused anybody of being racist. I don’t believe that is true.”

Day said Coté has told him point blank that he wants the endorsement policy changed. The board president anticipates that Coté’s next move will be to dub the chamber’s political endorsements inappropriate based on an alleged commingling of funds with the publicly financed Economic Development Corporation.

“You have an individual with strong ties to the Democratic Party,” Day said. “He sees an organization that tends to be conservative and he’s trying to silence that voice. And he’ll use any tactics he can to do that.”

Coté denied the accusation.

“I personally don’t think the chambers of commerce should endorse people,” he said. “If you are going to do it, however, you should have a free and open vote. Currently we’re not doing it with the consensus of everyone the chamber represents.”

Coté has recently leveled two other criticisms at the Gilroy chamber, including charges of a conflict of interest involving Jane Howard, interim director of the Economic Development Corporation. Howard stepped down from as the chair of the chamber’s Government Relations Committee in the wake of Coté’s criticisms. He also blasted the chamber for granting the endorsement committee sole power to recommend political candidates.

That lead to some public criticism of the chamber and its political endorsement policy, and Day says Coté’s plans are to keep the pressure on until the chamber folds.

“Currently there’s a lot of conjecture that they’re not doing things the right way,” Coté said. “But they’ve dug in their heels.”

He is now suggesting that the chamber’s endorsement policy is, indeed, inappropriate based on an alleged commingling of funds with the Economic Development Corporation, a publicly financed nonprofit group. The city provides the majority of the EDC’s funding, and the chamber provides the EDC with $30,000 a year. Both business-oriented groups share office space on Monterey Street, but retain separate boards and financial administration.

The friction between Coté and the chamber has even pulled Mayor Al Pinheiro into the fray. Chamber director Susan Valenta, who manages the organization on a day-to-day basis, recently notified Pinheiro of Coté’s latest criticism.

The mayor dismissed the commingling-of-funds argument, but he had his own reservations about the chamber’s endorsement policy.

“I never felt there should be an endorsement policy because there is too much diversity,” said Pinheiro, who received the chamber’s endorsement prior to his own election. “For you as a board to have an endorsement committee on a general candidate, it’s very tough. I can see having an endorsement committee on specific issues, such as taxes that may hinder businesses. But when you start to endorse a mayor or other candidates, that’s when you start getting into trouble because you’re going to have people within your own membership who are Republican and Democrat …It’s always easier to criticize than it is to be constructive. Obviously Mr. Coté found something he felt he needed to criticize and he’s using his right to do that. It is a free country.”

Yet Pinheiro also pointed out that the Chamber has procedural mechanisms to amend bylaws.

“Obviously up until now, only Mr. Coté has a problem with these policies,” he said. “If other members have a problem with these policies, they should address the chamber board and have it changed.”

The latest round of infighting underscores the problem festering at the chamber, where decisions on political endorsements remain in the hands of the endorsement committee following an embarrassing episode during the previous election season. Last summer, when the committee was vetting candidates for the 28th District Assembly seat, a split vote took place to endorse incumbent Simón Salinas for the position. But the board of directors ultimately overturned the recommendation after reviewing Salinas’ voting history and deciding he did not have a pro-business record. Salinas could not be reached for comment.

Coté and others in the community cried foul over the reversal and accused the chamber of being undemocratic. Day responded that the endorsement committee committed multiple procedural errors over the Salinas endorsement, the biggest of which involved allowing a general vote to take place. Chamber bylaws state that only the handful of members on the endorsement committee can vote to recommend candidates, with the board of directors retaining final authority.

Had it been approved, Coté’s Feb. 25 motion to appoint a Hispanic Chamber member to the endorsement committee would also have violated chamber bylaws, according to Day and Valenta. The group’s guidelines state that only the board of directors can appoint members to the endorsement committee, with a baseline requirement of two years of active participation in chamber activities. That requirement, Day said, led chamber members to reject the motion in a 6-3 vote.

Joan Spencer, who represents Coté’s nonprofit foundation in the chamber, voted for the motion, as did Mary Humphrey, one of the chamber’s board of directors.

Humphrey said she understood the motion as a recommendation to have the board of directors – not the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce itself – appoint a representative to the endorsement committee.

Coté said that was his intention, although he made the motion without the approval of the Hispanic Chamber. The group’s president, Raul Vega, said he informed Coté two weeks earlier that the Hispanic Chamber’s bylaws prohibit any member from making political endorsements.

“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Vega,” Coté said. “I’m not a member of the Hispanic Chamber so I don’t have exact familiarity with their bylaws or rules. My motion was to extend an invitation. How they would handle that would be up to them.”

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