October 11, 2007

NT Chamber Controversy

Received an interesting email from a North Tonawanda reader. Seems like the chamber doesn't know that even a PERCEIVED conflict of interest actually is a conflict.
A minor brouhaha developed in North Tonawanda regarding debates for city council and county legislature candidates, to be hosted later this month by the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas. At issue is the fact that the current Chamber President, Dave Burgio, and a member of the chamber's government affairs committee, Dennis Pasiak, are both candidates and would be participants in the debate. The Tonawanda News ran an article about it over the weekend, and had quotes from current Council President Brett Sommer (who is not up for re-election this year) and others saying it raised a question a fairness.

The chamber's executive director, Joyce Santiago, explained in the article that it will be a fair process, and that none of the chamber members who are candidates are involved in setting up the debates, and will not have access to the questions in advance. End of story, right?

This is North Tonawanda, where there is always another page to turn. Apparently, Ms. Santiago wants to send a letter to the editor to the paper more fully explaining the chamber's position. In transmitting a draft to the board via e-mail, she writes, "Some of you may have seen the "Chamber to host debates" article in the Saturday, 10/6, issue of the Tonawanda News.

"Instead of a notice about the forum and the request for questions, it was reported that some took issue with the Chamber's involvement as we have a President and a Government Affairs Committee Member who are also candidates. A question of fairness to other candidates was raised.

"I've attached both the article and a letter to the editor of the Tonawanda News that I would like to have printed asap."

(btw, here's the article -- http://www.tonawanda-news.com/local/local_story_278232331.html)

So far, so good.

But then she writes, "Normally I wouldn't respond to fools but I do not want the public to get the wrong idea and I think it is important to point out to the readers that the Chamber does a service and that those who raised the question did so to make trouble, not actually add anything of value."

Her e-mail also says she chatted with NT GOP chair Bill Patton about the potential for conflict, and that he was satisfied. She says he even apologized for Brett Sommer's remarks. She also says that "Candidate Dennis Pasziak" also had no issue -- although she spelled his name incorrectly.

In a reply e-mail sent to the full board, Board Member Doug Taylor applauded the letter, saying, "The letter's current tone takes the high road, like that of a teacher responding to an unruly junior high school student in the 7-8th grade."

Her letter is innocuous enough, but does include the following sentence -- "It was irresponsible of them to do otherwise, given the importance of what we offer to the communities." -- in saying that the "parties who raised the question of impropriety" never contacted her directly.

Frankly, she is not wrong that is probably much ado about nothing. But to suggest that anyone who questions is a "fool" and "irresponsible" suggests that her p.r. meter must be broken. You have a former GOP mayor who is now the head of the chamber, yet claims he doesn't attend committee meetings. He is now running for city council, with the backing of the Democrats. He will be taking part in a debate administered by the very organization he chairs. C'mon, Joyce, somebody was going to raise a question about that. And, was it Sommer who raised the question, or the reporter at the Tonawanda News? And, Doug, an "unruly junior high student" is the way to describe someone who may not agree?

Calling people "fools" and "irresponsible" in e-mails to more than 20 business leaders in the area might also cause us regular folk to wonder just what is going on. Flogging the issue is no way to make it go away. And, Doug, an "unruly junior high student" is the way to describe someone who may not agree?

Is this the best and brightest the business community has to offer? As a member of the chamber, it certainly makes me wonder.


Don A said...

Wow, that's a hell of a pickle. I definitely see a conflict. If someone tells me that Burgio has no idea what will be coming at him at this forum, I'd call him a liar. He will absolutely have the inside track.

The chamber loses alot of credibility on this one. The guy heads the chamber, but then we should expect the chamber to completely disassociate itself from it's relationship with Burgio for these two hours? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

I think that you would have to be a "fool" not to see the potential perceived conflict of interest.

Mrs. Santiago was hand-picked by Mr. Burgio and the Santiago's and the Burgio's are known to be fast friends and it was Dave Burgio who convinced his friend Lou Santiago to run for the NT City Council in 2001. It is without question that they are both political and personal allies

I would think that it would be important for Chamber members to make sure that their organization appears above board and non-partisan. In fact, I'm surprised that they haven't asked former Mayor Burgio to temporarily step down as Chamber President until the campaign is over.

Fat Tony said...

When will these business organizations learn that it's not smart to get so deeply involved in politics.

Everyone in NT knows that Dan Rivera has long served on the chamber's government affairs committee. This debate will be about as fair as the one sponsored by the Concerned Nuts, er, taxpayers of Niagara County.

If I were a candidate, I wouldn't go to any debate not sponsored by the league or some other non-partisan group.

Scott Leffler said...

It's a shame, really. When the Niagara USA Chamber was busy sticking it's nose in all sorts of county politics this summer, I was told that the Chamber of the Tonawandas was the salvation. Looks like maybe they're not any better.

Anonymous said...

The way you end up making it sound, people were called foolish and childish because they asked questions. I read it as being HOW they "asked". You mentioned they only responded in the newspaper. I read the article in the Tonawanda News. It seems to me that one of the people interviewed is highly known to make nasty statements in the paper for his own good but never is part of solving the problem. To me, that IS childish and foolish.

I've also been to plenty of these debates. As far back as I remember, the chamber has always conducted them, even when Mr. Burgio was running for Mayor. If you are familiar with the format, there really is no inside track. The questions asked are pretty standard and everyone is given a fair amount of time. I appreciate the fact that the chamber bothers to hold these. I'm really surprised at Scott Leffler's comments because he usually finds out his own facts before he comments for which I admire him. He should know that a chamber holding a forum in which both sides will get a chance to speak, is not the same as a chamber being political. I've seen chambers endorse candidates. Now that is political. Should the chamber have bowed out this year from holding the forums because of how it "looks"? In this town, maybe, but did anyone else offer to conduct them? I haven't seen any evidence of that.

After reading this blog, I'm more concerned that someone on their board actually shared confidential information. It just goes to show that you can't trust anyone.

Pirate's Code said...

The chamber has every right to offer and conduct a debate. I don't think that's the issue. I read this as so-called intelligent business people being somehow surprised that political people might see a potential conflict of interest. Politicians acting political. Dog bites man.

Solution? Host the debate, but ask a third party (Christy? Leffler?) to moderate it and ask the questions. Still performing a service for its members but removing the perception of conflict. This is not rocket science, people.

Scott -- I don't know what politics the Niagara group stuck its nose in this summer, but chambers everywhere (the good ones, anyway), do this on a regular basis. The idea that business should not have a say in government is ridiculous. Business don't vote on a ballot, but they vote with their feet.

In other news, Dan Rivera is on the chamber's government affairs committee. Now that's funny.

Scott Leffler said...


I think that "advocacy" as chambers like to call it is a good thing and has a place.

My problem with the NUSAC is that they don't advocate their member's view to politicians, but rather advocate the politicians views to their members.

I'm hopeful that with a new CEO that practice will change.

Anonymous said...

If you're surprised at Scott L's remarks, you aren't paying attention. He has an ax to grind with NUSAC and will take any opportunity to take a shot at them. Exactly what activity this past summer constituted NUSAC "sticking their noses" in politics? Of course he doesn't say because he would actually have to substantiate any specifics.