The Tooele County Chamber of Commerce’s executive board surprised much of the local business community and all of the general populace with the sudden firing of chamber executive director Debbie Winn last Wednesday. Winn, who had led the organization for seven years, was one of the most high-profile leaders in the county, maintaining a constant presence at business functions, government meetings and civic functions.
Chamber officials aren’t disclosing the specific reasons why Winn was fired, so any attempt to say whether her termination was justified would be mere speculation at this point. However, we can safely say that such public firings are rare in Tooele County, where quiet resignations are more the norm, particularly for someone who has headed an organization for so long. Most county residents will naturally take Winn’s firing as a sign of internal discord at the chamber — likely the first they’ve heard of any problems within the organization.
In reality, however, in-fighting at the chamber is little secret among members, who had largely divided into pro- and anti-Winn factions months ago. That divisiveness is at odds with the chamber’s Come Together program to encourage residents to work in concert to support the local economy.
We think the chamber is at a crossroads, and before it takes a particular direction it needs to first define itself.
In many areas, chambers of commerce have a narrowly defined mission to advocate solely on behalf of small business. This often means sticking up for the small business community when it comes into conflict with powerful corporate interests or feels beset by onerous government regulations and burdensome taxation. The Tooele County Chamber of Commerce, however, includes several large corporations and numerous government officials in its ranks. In fact, of its 15 board members, only five represent independent, local small businesses. That’s the same number of seats given to advisory board members, all of whom come from the ranks of government.
That inclusiveness could be seen as a strength by some, but it also means the chamber rarely takes public stands on issues affecting small business for fear of offending its non small-business membership. A good example of this occurred only last month when the chamber stayed silent on a tax increase enacted by the Tooele County School District that hit businesses particularly hard. It also means the chamber schizophrenically advocates shopping at corporations like Costco, a chamber member located in West Valley City, even as it extolls the virtues of buying local.
We’d like to see the chamber put internal power struggles behind it and get back to its roots as a small business advocacy organization. That means more nuts-and-bolts seminars to help businesses develop, more economic development initiatives aimed at the small business community as a whole, and speaking with a much louder voice when small business interests are threatened.
Winn’s firing leaves the chamber adrift in a sea of questions. It could go a long way toward steadying the ship by getting back to its core mission.