Way too cozy

Reno City Councilmember Paul McKenzie did us all a service in raising the question of the city government’s membership in the local chamber of commerce.

There are those who wanted to write off his concern to his role as a labor union official. And there were those who didn’t want the topic discussed at all, which is probably why it dropped off the radar screen so fast.

The fact is, there is way too much coziness between city government and the business community in general and the Reno-Sparks Chamber in particular. Moreover, the money doesn’t always flow from the city to the chamber, which indicates how cozy it all is.

In 1996, for instance, when the Reno City Council wanted to hold a meeting somewhere the Reno public would have difficulty attending—California—the chamber helped pay the tab. Can city politicians be indebted to business lobbyists that way and remain independent in their policy stands and votes on the council? They would no doubt answer yes, but it’s unlikely the public would take their word for it—nor should they have to. The council should stay clean in the first place.

This is hardly the only mixing of public money with private interests, or interested money with public policies.

Why, for instance, did the state Commission on Mineral Resources give $2,500 for the political group Nevada Mineral Exploration Coalition (which has three lobbyists at the Nevada Legislature) to have a trade show booth?

Why, for many years, did the Nevada Legislature pay $1,000 a year dues to the reactionary American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has promoted stand-your-ground gun laws, polling place voter identification requirements, climate change denialism (until some of its biggest funders like Google and Microsoft cut them off), and Arizona-style immigration policies?

Take it a little further. Why do elected officeholders use their office employees to work their political campaigns, as an impeached state controller did in 2002? Why do agencies like the Regional Transportation Commission and the Washoe District Attorney’s office use public resources or their official office space to campaign for or against ballot measures?

And why do public prosecutors wink at all these behaviors?

Finally, what is so difficult about avoiding cutting those kinds of corners?

Getting back to Reno city government being a member of the local chamber, it’s not as though there was any written policy on what organizations the city will join. It was just assumed that a chamber of commerce falls into that category. That indicates an automatic comfort level between the two that the city does not have with, say, the Reno Sparks NAACP (we checked—the city is not a member) or the American Civil Liberties Union, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, or even ALEC. So this one group has a special advantage in approaching city government.

Over the decades, local chambers of commerce under their various names have been identified with some of the worst policies Reno, Washoe and Sparks governments have followed, and this automatic assumption that such an unhealthy connection is good for local governance may well explain why those pitfalls were not avoided. Because of the coziness in the relationship, chamber claims, interests, and motives were not scrutinized by city councilmembers with the same intensity as those of other interest groups.

It’s time they were, and thanks to McKenzie, maybe now they will be.