By Royal Calkins
There is nothing wrong with Steve McShane sitting on the Salinas City Council. There was nothing wrong with McShane working as president and CEO of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce.
But there is a lot wrong with him doing both at the same time.
Also concerning is that the community seemingly just went along with it for months. It was a clear conflict of interest but conflicts of that sort seem to have become normalized in Monterey County.
But apparently, the normalization only went so far. Details have been slow to emerge but apparently McShane was suspended from the job last week and the chamber dropped the city’s chamber membership.
Following days of rumors that McShane had been suspended from his position as CEO, KSBW-TV reported Tuesday on the chamber’s decision and on McShane’s suspension. No reason has been given publicly but others on the council and in the business community say the suspension came after McShane, at the May 23 council meeting, openly urged the rest of the council to approve sending more city money to the chamber. The city, like many cities, has routinely contributed to the local chamber of commerce, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. And having a council member at both ends of the transaction makes the conflict even more clear.
Several months ago I sent McShane a Facebook message asking why he thought it was okay for him to head the chamber while serving on the council. He replied that he had run it past the city attorney, who said it wasn’t a problem. City attorneys can be like that. Nothing is a problem until it is. He didn’t respond to a request for comment this week.
Why is this a problem? There is more than one answer.
First, the head of a chamber of commerce is essentially a lobbyist for all the chamber members and, essentially, every business in town. Even if the executive director isn’t lobbying the city on behalf a particular chamber member, say ABC Hardware or Billy Bob’s Bar and Grill, lobbying for the city to put more street lights downtown or change the traffic pattern on North Main Street translates to lobbying for all the businesses downtown, all the businesses along North Main. The interests of the chamber aren’t always in line with the interests of the public.
Some members of government bodies like the City Council address such conflicts by abstaining on voting on such matters. But that doesn’t eliminate the type of conflicts that arise when a council member uses his or her relationship with other council members or city employees to push a certain position. One doesn’t have to vote to affect the outcome from behind the curtain.
Finally, McShane’s public expression of support for sliding city money toward the chamber apparently bothered some other council members and members of the public, and it prompted some of them to start digging.
As a result, Voices obtained a couple of emails in which McShane made the chamber’s position clear to City Manager Steve Carrigan.
In a May 12 email, McShane complained that “we,” meaning Salinas, “do not have ANYONE directly responsible for marketing our … City for Tourism.
“Even the CA Welcome Center has very limited funds to do so and cannot do so properly. I’m going to suggest the City allocate $50K for this purpose in the form of an RFP. Please let me know.”
An RFP is a request for proposals, a bid for a contract. Since the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce is interested in promoting Salinas’ businesses, it could follow that the organization would be interested in obtaining a contract to promote the city. There wasn’t any indication in the message that the chamber might be interested in receiving such a contract but there also wasn’t any indication that it wouldn’t.
That message went to the manager as the council was starting budget sessions. So was the next message, on the same day.
“One other thing that I’ve asked for/reminded for each year for 12 years. Please make sure that funding is called out for Salinas Valley Food and Wine, $5k – city services, Airshow, Rodeo.”
Correction: This article originally reported that the chamber sponsors the Food and Wine event. It actually is one of several sponsors.
McShane continues, “I can send this from the chamber if you would like but please include the allocations that traditionally have been included.
“I think Annual Awards Lunch and Legacy and Leadership at $5k a pop. Especially if the City chooses not to renew its (chamber) membership due to the potential for a perceived conflict of interest.”
The awards lunch and the legacy and leadership thing: yes, chamber events.
Earlier McShane had sent the manager a list of his budget priorities for the year. It was a short list that included $50,000 for tourism and community promotion. The kind of thing the chamber does.
Even if McShane was abstaining from chamber-related votes, being on the council gave him unique access to other council members and the entire city staff. Not incidentally, the entire city staff understands who sets budgets and salaries.
Coincidentally, government’s relationship with chambers of commerce also became an issue last week with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. South County Supervisor Chris Lopez proposed the county join a group of chambers of commerce but the idea was voted down by a board majority of Glenn Church, Mary Adams and Wendy Root Askew. The reasons they cited were philosophical, not financial.
Various government agencies on the Peninsula have for years been members of chambers of commerce and have provided financial support to various business councils and other organizations involved in lobbying those very same agencies. Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig is CEO of the Monterey County Business Council, which promotes a variety of issues but mainly commercial enterprise and that provides her with the income she needs to essentially function as a full-time mayor.
Pacific Grove City Council Member Jenny McAdams, formerly an aide to Supervisor Root Askew, also works for the Business Council, which seems to have become somewhat of an incubator for politicians. Another Business Council staffer recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Monterey City Council.
Personal and professional entanglements in the county may have reached their peak while retired judge John Phillips was on the Board of Supervisors. He left the board last year. Friends and professional colleagues of Phillips benefited from the relationship in the form of county contracts and Phillips’ explanation, that he was sure they would do good work, didn’t fully answer the questions raised. The state Fair Political Practices Commission has looked into some of those situations, such as Phillips’ friend John Narigi running the county’s Laguna Seca racetrack, but the FPPC has such a backlog of complaints that it hasn’t ever provided clear opinions on the rightness or wrongness.
The McShane situation and the FPPC’s delicate approach to its responsibilities demonstrate that the public can’t depend on government to make sure its representatives are always playing it straight. It’s increasingly apparent that people in the community need to ask more questions and pay closer attention to the different hats the elected actors are wearing.
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