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Chamber Votes to Enter Political Arena

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 18 - Emboldened by the defeat of the City's living wage law, the Chamber of Commerce board Tuesday broke from tradition and unanimously voted to endorse City Council candidates and form a Political Action Committee to help bankroll their campaigns.

The move -- which will likely make the chamber one of Santa Monica's most powerful political forces, along with Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the Police Union -- comes at a time when relations with the City Council have grown increasingly acrimonious.

"It's time to have a more proactive stance for business," said board member Ann Greenspun, a former president of the chamber. "There's been a lot of anti-business decisions made at the council level. No matter how much we try to negotiate it ends up the same result.

"It took a long time to get there," Greenspun added, "but people are just tired of the same 5 to 2 vote. It's just time to have a strong voice, to have our voices heard and to have it be reasonable. It's about time."

The decision is expected to further strain relations between the chamber and the City Council, which pulled its membership in the organization after the chamber filed a lawsuit challenging the City's preferential parking policies two years ago.

"I think it's a serious misstep, and I think it's going to be divisive," said Mayor Richard Bloom, who dropped his law firm's membership after the lawsuit was filed. "We're facing some of the most serious problems in years economically. The city needs to pull together, not be divided.

"Millions were poured into the living wage," Bloom said. "Some of these folks are looking at the dollars and thinking, 'Hey, we can use that to knock off the council'… That's just sickening. It ain't gonna happen."

Chamber officials said the decision to enter the political arena for the 2004 council race comes after its issues PAC became a large contributor to the campaign to defeat the City's unprecedented living wage law, which was shot down by voters on November 5.

The decision, officials said, was also spurred by a membership survey that identified the homeless and parking and traffic, followed by "the political environment," as the biggest hindrances to business.

"To do something about one and two, we have to do three," said chamber executive director Kathy Dodson. "The board had been talking a lot about what it's going to take to change the political environment in Santa Monica."

Respondents, chamber officials said, agreed that what was needed was "a City government that recognizes the value of the business community to Santa Monica." Business people, according to the survey, would like a government they can work with, and most respondents put the blame on a City Council that "doesn't find balanced solutions," officials said.

The permitting and regulatory processes are seen as subjective, expensive and time consuming, said chamber president Linda "Tish" Tisherman, resulting in "numerous business opportunities left on the table (especially for small business) because it is too difficult to get anything accomplished."

Bloom called the claim that the City is not supportive of business "ludicrous."

"It is ludicrous for the business community to claim there is something wrong with the business climate in the city," said the mayor, who owns a family law practice. "All you have to do is look around and see how successful businesses are in this city. I'm one of these (business) people."

Bloom blames the new direction the council has taken on a small faction within the chamber. "The chamber appears to have come under the influence of a relatively small group of politically active developers and business owners," he said. "I think this is what probably drives this agenda."

Councilman Ken Genser agrees. "It doesn't surprise me," said Genser, who is the longest-serving member on the council. "They've been very political and following the political philosophy of more activist board members. This is just an extension."

Genser believes the rift between the City and the chamber is do to the increasingly adversarial attitude of chamber leaders. Instead of asking, "what can we do to solve some of these problems?" Genser said, chamber officials "like to complain how the City doesn't listen to them.

"They just haven't tried to develop a constructive relationship," Genser said. "They have just highlighted differences."

But Councilman Bob Holbrook said the chamber's "extraordinary" step is warranted by the City's negative attitude towards the business community.

"I guess they've been forced to do that with the politics in the city," Holbrook said. "The City views the business community as a problem instead of an asset. They just look at the business community as a competition with residents.

"The chamber has tried to work with the City, and now a warlike atmosphere exists between the business community and the majority on the council," Holbrook said. "It's really a departure from what the chambers of commerce normally do, but they feel so put upon, they feel it's the only thing they can do."
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