As you may know, I have been a volunteer for the West Linn Chamber of Commerce since 2001. While my heart holds a place for community service; my personal life must take precedence. I will resign, effective immediately, as past president and ex-officio board member.
I was president of the chamber from 2006 to 2007 and vice president from 2002 to 2005.
In past letters and articles published in these pages, I have been willing to take credit for many of the positive contributions made by the chamber and will take my share of responsibility for the current hardship facing the organization.
In early March, I sent an e-mail to city officials and the West Linn Tidings regarding the closure of the chamber office. Like wolves feasting on a fresh kill, rumors, mistruths and personal attacks flooded the Tidings Web site, my inbox and even my place of employment.
I went public with this information to avert the appearance of myself and others being complicit in covering up revelations of a gross misuse of chamber funds.
In my contemplation of the conditions that led to the downfall of the chamber, I recognize the part I played and am grateful for the valuable life lessons that come with this admission. For the past six years I have been the driving force behind revitalizing the chamber from its irrelevance in 2001 to becoming an important community partner.
In my drive to create credibility for the chamber, I pioneered new sources of revenue that included fees from the city to produce the Farmers and Artists Market as well as county tourism grants. Other sources of revenue came from the chamber directory, annual auction, golf tournament, lunch forums and membership dues.
Revenue in 2001 was approximately $20,000 and by 2007 had grown to nearly $150,000. To support the new programs and sources of revenue we rented an 800-square-foot office and hired an executive director.
The board offered Mary Closson, who was an event consultant at the time, this position. With reasonable forecasts of membership and fundraising goals, the board felt confident that her salary would be covered.
In 2005, we performed a financial analysis and developed a balanced budget for 2006. I updated the financial analysis at the end of 2006 and developed a balanced budget for 2007. This budget was adopted by the board and presented to Closson.
With the 2007 budget and updated strategic outlook and business plan in place to guide Closson, I steered the volunteer board away from managing the chamber to advising the chamber. With this decision, responsibility for day-to-day operations was handled by Closson.
Each month, Closson provided financial statements at the board meeting. On the surface, the statements were acceptable. They included cash flow and balance sheets for all chamber accounts. The reports always showed cash for operations.
The entire board was completely in the dark regarding unauthorized transfers from the Farmers and Artists Market account and restricted tourism funds account, large outstanding bills, uncollected membership dues, personal debit expenditures by Closson, bank penalties, late tax filing penalties and other misuses of funds.
After Closson resigned, the board learned that chamber expenditures far exceeded what was budgeted in 2007. In an independent financial analysis, it was determined that the chamber had approximately $28,000 in debt, of which $18,000 went unreported to the board.
As the chamber president in 2006 and 2007, I carry my share of the responsibility for the events that unfolded. Acting as a whistleblower, I disclosed the condition of the chamber finances to the public.
Contrary to the opinion of the current board members, I know that I did the right thing. Our society is rampant with deception, lies and cover-ups. Truth is the only remedy for this sickness, and while it is sometimes painful to accept, it is the only path to liberation.
As the board of directors move forward with renewed optimism and energy, my hope is that the lessons learned through this experience will lead the chamber in becoming a stronger and more sustainable organization.
Mark Buser is a West Linn resident and candidate for the West Linn City Council.