Portland Chamber to form PAC

Portland Chamber to form PAC 
Board members told to stop talking to press

By Chris Busby

At the Sept. 27 board meeting of the Portland Regional Chambers of Commerce, members voted to allow regional Chambers to form political action committees (PACs) set up to contribute money to political campaigns. The Portland Community Chamber intends to form a PAC this fall that may give cash to candidates for three Portland City Council seats.

As we reported earlier this month, some members of the business-advocacy group have expressed concern that PACs could divide Chamber members along political lines, and make it difficult for non-profits that receive federal money (funds that cannot be used for partisan purposes) to continue paying membership dues.

That criticism, however, appears to have been stifled in part by a directive, issued to board members at the Sept. 27 meeting, dictating that media inquiries about Chamber matters must be forwarded to Godfrey Wood, the Portland Regional Chamber’s Chief Executive Officer. 

For example, board member John Gallagher, a critic of the decision to form a PAC who was quoted in our earlier story, did not return a call seeking comment after the vote. Board member Chip Harris, President of the Portland Community Chamber and a PAC proponent, has likewise kept mum on this issue, though he did not return a call seeking comment for our earlier article, either. 

A source familiar with the directive said attorneys gave board members copies of a “confidentiality agreement” at the Sept. 27 meeting. The agreement was presented as a “reminder” of previously established board policy, not a new directive, said the source, who spoke to The Bollard on condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the matter.

Wood, a proponent of Chamber PACs, said the PACs will be “explicitly non-partisan” and run by boards of at least seven people, no more than three of whom may be Chamber board members. Wood himself will sit on the board of the Portland Chamber’s PAC and the boards of any other PACs formed by regional Chambers associated with the umbrella group. The remaining board seats are reserved for Chamber members who do not serve on their organization’s board of directors.

The PAC boards will be required to report their activities to the Portland Regional Chamber’s board of directors, Wood said. Campaign funds contributed by PACs are listed, along with all other contributions, on public campaign finance forms submitted to election officials.

Dana Connors, President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said it’s not unusual or uncommon for regional Chambers in Maine to form PACs, depending on the political circumstances in their area. “It’s not a right or wrong decision,” said Connors, but rather a question of “how aggressive you want to be on that side of the equation, as opposed to the policy side.”

The Maine State Chamber, for example, has a PAC, and Connors said, “We have, from time to time, utilized it pretty aggressively, depending on the circumstances.”

Connors acknowledged PACs can be divisive, but noted that policy decisions can also arouse criticism from Chamber members. (State and regional Chambers are facing this prospect right now over a pending decision on whether or not to support the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a statewide, government-spending-control measure on the ballot this November.)

Connors said it’s important to “set up a process that’s transparent, well-known, and fair and objective in its application,” though “even then,” he added, the PAC’s decisions “will not be free of criticism.” 

Grant Lee – Executive Director of the non-profit, federally funded People’s Regional Opportunity Program – said his concerns about a Chamber PAC still remain, and PROP’s board of directors will discuss the issue at its meeting next month. 

Wood declined to comment on PROP’s concern that Chamber PAC contributions could prevent PROP from continuing its membership.

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