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Officials try to bury the hatchet

County Commission and Chamber of Commerce members meet to discuss the brouhaha over the chamber's rating of candidates.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002


TAMPA -- The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce may need to do more than apologize to make peace with county commissioners still angry over its ratings of commission candidates in last month's primary election.

Commissioners who got bad marks said the chamber broke rules barring nonprofit groups from endorsing candidates. Some threatened to cut $360,000 the county gives the chamber annually to promote economic development before the board voted last month to maintain the funding.

On Tuesday, chamber executives and four commissioners kicked around ideas to defuse the conflict. Both involved separating the part of the chamber that gets county money from the part that dabbles in politics.

The chamber could spin off the Committee of 100, the division that receives county money to recruit new businesses to move to Hillsborough County, said County Administrator Dan Kleman.

But that would just create another agency and drive up costs because the chamber provides the committee office space and covers its administrative expenses, said chamber president Kim Scheeler.

Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank said another alternative would be for the chamber to create a political action committee to endorse candidates.

But Commissioners Jan Platt and Thomas Scott said the county shouldn't police the political activities of various groups receiving county money.

The chamber sent commission candidates issue surveys and interviewed them. A panel of chamber members reviewed their responses and incumbents' voting records, then decided whether they agreed with the organization's positions on transportation, land use, economic development and other issues.

The chamber printed a brochure listing each name and a thumbs-up or thumbs-down symbol reflecting whether the candidate agreed with the chamber's positions. The brochure was mailed to all 2,300 chamber members and members of affiliate chambers in Hillsborough.

No county money was used to produce the mailing, and the evaluations weren't an endorsement, said chamber chairman Sandy MacKinnon.

But MacKinnon told commissioners Tuesday that the chamber made mistakes. The thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols, for example, may have looked too much like an endorsement, he said.

"Trust us," MacKinnon said. "We've learned a lesson."

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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