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Chamber board begins its recovery

The West Linn Chamber of Commerce board of directors began picking up the pieces Tuesday when it met to discuss the future of the non-profit organization after closing its doors last week due to a lack of funds.

Board President Mark Hanson said the chamber is currently operating with the help of volunteers, who are answering e-mails and phone calls from members. Last week, interim Director Patti Galle and Administrative Assistant Terri Morley both resigned when the chamber coffers were emptied after paying a series of unpaid bills dating back nearly a year.

According to Hanson, the board agreed Tuesday that the chamber would reduce its operating costs from a year ago when it employed a full-time director, an administrative assistant and accountant. He said it would vacate its office on Elliott Street and operate from inside a smaller space in the Westlake Property building on Willamette Drive, which is owned by chamber board member Molly Macom.

Hanson also said it would be unlikely that the chamber would retain another director and would hire only part-time staff in the near future.

'We've grown to a place, like any business we need to sort of reconsolidate a little bit and re-evaluate where we are and what the next prudent step is as a business,' Hanson said. 'And some of it is just watching our finances at this point. … The chamber is alive and active. We've got some things we have to work through.'

The future of the chamber was thrown into question after a series of dominoes recently fell, starting with the resignation in January of director Mary Closson to take a similar position with the Hood River Chamber of Commerce. Galle spent a month as the interim director starting in February, during which time she uncovered what she called questionable accounting practices that left almost $25,000 in unpaid bills. Once the bills were settled, Galle said, the chamber account was left with less than $800.

Galle and Hanson also said they discovered that the membership, through which much of the organization's revenue is generated, was overstated. Closson and former board President Mark Buser said there were 338 confirmed members, while Galle and Hanson could only count 211 actual paying members.

'We were really spending as if we were a larger chamber, membership-wise,' Hanson said.

Closson, who said she was attending a function in Idaho last week and could not receive messages left at her office requesting comment, said the board was made aware of the tight cash-flow situation throughout the course of 2007 and also in previous years. She said she had payment plans worked out with many vendors.

She also maintains that membership was confirmed at 338 members when she resigned.

'It's absolutely ridiculous that an existing sitting board member would not be aware that the cash flow was tight,' Closson said.

Closson believes the chamber ran into problems when monthly membership invoices were not sent out for February. Galle says the board was in the process of transitioning membership dues to proactive yearly dues and said February dues would only delay the inevitable.

This convoluted scenario has brought up a number of questions about how the chamber has operated since it began to grow in 2001, when Buser became board president. Closson joined as a part-time marketing consultant in July 2005 and was hired full time the next year.

'This groundswell of growth started to take place,' Closson said. 'On average, we brought in 10 members a month. … The buzz was out there; people were hearing the buzz of the chamber. But again, at the same time, the idea that I irresponsibly grew the membership is absurd.'

Members have also raised concern over a $12,000 grant given to the chamber by the city of West Linn to assist with the planning and management of the Farmers and Artists Market. Galle said when she took over, the chamber still owed $3,000 to farmers market vendors.

City Manager Chris Jordan said the city budget committee and the city council approved the funds.

'The farmers market we consider is a good community event that brings the community together, and we want to support events like that,' Jordan said.

Jordan said the city is also a chamber member and has paid less than $1,000 in the past year in dues and luncheon and event fees.

He said he met with several board members in February to discuss the chamber's financial problems.

'I received a briefing on it,' Jordan said. 'And we did not have a lot of ideas at that point. … The chamber of commerce helps provide a service to the community: visitor's information and a platform that helps businesses be sustainable and profitable. We're pleased to be supportive when we can. On the other hand, the chamber is a private non-profit organization and needs to survive on its own. We're not the chamber of commerce.'

Hanson said the board discussed requesting an independent audit but said limited funds would make that difficult to pay for.

'We talked today about even having someone come in from outside to view the books and give oversight like that,' Hanson said. '… We want to let (our members) know that we want to take those steps. When that will happen and who does it, I can't tell you at this point. … We don't have anything to hide.'

The board is also dealing with the threat of legal action being taken by Closson, who is seeking $4,090 in unpaid vacation pay and bonuses. Hanson did not wish to comment on how the board plans to take action.

He said the chamber plans to hold several open forums for members and interested residents.

'Really you don't need a building and you don't need a staff members to run an organization like this,' Hanson said. 'The chamber is its members.'