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Chamber of secrets? (12/07/2008)
By John Edstrom

The Winona Chamber of Commerce decision to bar the local media from last Thursday’s general membership luncheon with Mn/DOT engineer, Jai Kalsy, came as an inexplicable shock to us, not the least because we are members of long-standing as, of course, are the Daily News and Winona Radio.

At a meeting of Chamber President Della Schmidt and Executive Director Larry Laber with Winona Post representatives, Schmidt explained that it was hoped an absence of media coverage would encourage candid questions from Chamber members. Laber observed that Chamber membership was shrinking and media-free events might help reverse the trend, as some members have expressed an unwillingness to speak up and possibly find themselves in the news.

This rationale is difficult to fathom. There are few shrinking violets belonging to the Chamber, and those willing to speak up are generally happy to be heard, by themselves as well as others; the possibility of being quoted more widely in the news would serve as an incentive to weigh in.

And with Chamber membership getting to be a tougher sale, why bar media coverage of an event that is designed to be of great benefit for members? For that matter, the Chamber of Commerce has to rely on the media to report on its activities so that people will know what purpose it serves and what it is doing. Does Chamber leadership think that it can dictate its own coverage through, say, press releases? That would be very naive.

Since none of the stated reasons for the news blackout are credible, it is fair to conjecture that somehow, Chamber leaders feel more can be accomplished by a secret rather than open discussion between itself and Mn/DOT; or at least, it would like its dwindling membership to think that it is taking part in some grandly important secret process. They run the gamut from naive to silly. The only real secrets in these undertakings will be closely held by Mn/DOT and not released to the Winona Chamber of Commerce or anyone else until the agency is good and ready, media coverage notwithstanding.

We see here in the Chamber a faith in secrecy as a clever tool for getting business – public business – done. It is a pernicious belief shared with too many in local government. I understand that the Chamber is a private organization — I sometimes wonder if Chamber leadership does, or if it sees itself as quasi-governmental? For that matter, why would the state Chamber of Commerce throw in with the DFL to get a huge new gas tax passed in the face of record high fuel prices and a recession?

In any case, Mn/DOT is very much a public entity and any CC sponsored discussions concerning the new Interstate Bridge between MnDOT and Winona business interests held in secret (relative) are not likely to put the Chamber in any kind of good odor with the broader community — nor bring it any but unfavorable publicity, no help for a shrinking membership base.



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