The ongoing conflict between the City of West Hollywood and the Chamber of Commerce finally came to a boil Monday night as their long-standing relationship and contractual agreements were placed squarely on the chopping block.
Agenda Item 5C, sponsored by Councilmembers John Erickson and Sepi Shyne, called for the discontinuation of the business outreach and commuter center services that the Chamber has provided WeHo for many years, as well as a one-time contract for mediation services related to COVID rent relief efforts. Instead of paying the Chamber nearly $150,000 to perform these services, city staff members would assume the duties themselves.
Severing contracts with the Chamber was included as part of a larger agenda item meant to “promote transparency, ethics, and public trust,” which also called for changes to the city’s lobbyist ordinance and enforcement policy.
Yet it was no secret that personal and political qualms with the Chamber had fueled the divorce proceedings.
The Chamber has vocally opposed a number of moves by City Council this year, including new restrictions on hotel workers and wage standards which the Chamber says are hurting small businesses still struggling from the COVID pandemic. A PR campaign opposing the measures and a divisive public poll, both indirectly linked to the Chamber, put some councilmembers on the defensive, and the move to cut Chamber funding was seen by some as a direct response to that.
As the vote came before Council, Mayor Lauren Meister and Councilmember John D’Amico urged caution to their colleagues.
“I’ve had deep, fundamental disagreements with our Chamber,” D’Amico said. “But one thing I do know is they have a deep understanding of our businesses. I want to make sure we’re not cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
While they agreed that the way city funds were spent by the Chamber, as well as other nonprofits and contracted agencies, needed to become more transparent, the timing and circumstance of the move made it seem retaliatory.
“By just focusing on the Chamber, that’s what it looks like,” Meister said. “I think what they provide in those couple of contracts, we get our money’s worth.”
D’Amico advised Erickson to steer clear from even the appearance of a vendetta.
“I think you need a thicker skin, man,” D’Amico said. “People who are not elected get to say whatever they want about elected officials. Elected officials when they say whatever they want about people in the community, they just sound mean. The public has to trust that we can take blows time and time again and make good decisions on behalf of the city.”
Erickson defended the motives behind his agenda item.
“This isn’t about anyone,” he said. “This isn’t about bad things being said. This is about accountability and public trust.”
Councilmember Lindsey Horvath tried to bridge the divide.
“Let’s just be honest,” she said. “We are in a difficult moment. The question comes — I’m just trying to keep it real here — what is business outreach and how are those dollars being used? That’s where the potential conflict of interest comes in.”
She called out both sides for playing a “tit for tat” game and urged a sensible approach.
“If we think that there’s a better partner out there, let’s have a real conversation about it,” she said. “If we’re serious about ending this contract, that’s a conversation to have during budget discussions,” which would occur in Summer 2022. “But I don’t think anyone at this moment is better positioned to do this work other than the Chamber.”
The council ultimately agreed to table the item until next year, while ordering a report on the feasibility of city staff taking up the duties performed by the Chamber.
Horvath emphasized the importance of not choosing sides, earning praise from both D’Amico and Erickson.
“I’m choosing community,” she said. “I’m choosing what is best for the city.”