The Maricopa Chamber of Commerce board of directors imploded at the end of 2010. In three months, two board chairmen, the chamber president, the president’s assistant and one other
board member resigned. Another board member’s term ended and he did not seek reelection. By mid-January, only three members of the board that sat in August were still at the table.
“We certainly have gone through some bumpy times,” said Mary Jane Lopez, one of the remaining board members.
Despite “the bumpy times,” and the difficult to decipher controversies behind them, the chairman of the reconstituted board confidently asserts the chamber is in good shape, serving the needs of its members, and that the board is united in refocusing attention and efforts on meeting the needs of small and home-based businesses in Maricopa.
“The chamber is functioning very well under the diligent oversight of the current board,” said Board Chairman Bob Gillespie. “We have a strong administrative assistant in place who handles day-to-day, and we just added an events liaison.”
“There is finally unity on the board,” said Steve Durkee, who was appointed to fill one of the board vacancies in January. “I am one hundred percent confident that we are moving in the right direction.”
Most of the recent problems on the board seem to have started when chamber President/CEO Terri Kingery hired her boyfriend, Michael Crain, as her assistant early in the fall. According to Mark Molus, one of the chairmen who resigned, the personal relationship between Kingery and Crain made the hiring a violation of chamber bylaws. When the board approved the hiring, most members did not know about the live-in relationship, according to Molus, but some did and kept quiet.
“After that meeting, we found out that Terri and Michael were in a relationship and lived together, and the board was concerned that it presented a conflict,” Molus said.” We looked at the chamber bylaws and saw that the situation was specifically prohibited. You couldn’t have an employee reporting to someone they were in a relationship with.”
Complicating the situation, both Kingery and Crain were members of Community of Hope Church where board chairman Rusty Akers is lead pastor. Somewhere in the midst of the controversy, Akers stepped down as chairman and resigned from the board. Whether his resignation was due to a self-perceived conflict of interest or unwillingness to deal with the flap about Crain’s hiring is unclear. Akers declined to be interviewed and others did not want to talk on the record about why he left.
The next time the board met, sans Akers, it voted to let Crain go, but he managed to submit his resignation before the board could inform him of its decision.
Not long after that, in mid- December, Kingery announced she was resigning, too, in order to become president of the Santa Clarita, Calif. Chamber of Commerce.
Almost all current and former board members say they were “shocked” or “surprised” by Kingery’s sudden departure for Southern California. The leadership vacuum she left behind precipitated another conflict on the board.
There is a consensus that Kingery did an excellent job for the chamber, growing membership from 75 to more than 300 in her six years as president and CEO. Though assisted by volunteers and a part-time employee, she handled the majority of the chamber’s daily business, from finances to public relations, and her resignation left a gaping operational hole.
When she announced she was leaving, several board members, including Molus, who moved up from vice-chairman to chairman when Akers resigned, wanted to act quickly to put someone in her place on an interim basis so that the chamber would continue to function efficiently. But other board members resisted the move.
When Molus tried to gather the board to vote on hiring an interim president, other members pleaded holiday obligations and he was unable to get a quorum.
“If some of the board members didn’t want to hire an interim, they could have voted no, but I thought we should at least meet and make a decision, one way or the other,” Molus said. “I was frustrated that the board wouldn’t come together to deal with the issue.”
Gillespie, who became board chairman after Molus resigned, said there was no need to rush to install an interim president.
“All the board members have stepped up and taken on various tasks to make sure the chamber is functioning as it should,” Gillespie said. “The lack of a president doesn’t concern us.”
According to Gillespie, two and half months after Kingery announced her resignation, the board had not yet begun its search for a new president. “We are getting ready to launch a nationwide search,” he said. “We will also search locally. We are not in a hurry to make a decision.”
Despite Gillespie’s assertion that the chamber is functioning “perfectly” without a chief executive, other current board members see it differently.
“Obviously, we need to get someone in place to pick up where Terri left off,” said Lopez.
After Kingery’s departure, the chamber’s communication with the public and some of its own members faltered. No press releases were sent out about chamber elections or to announce board resignations, appointments or Gillespie’s chairmanship until months afterward.
“I believe Bob Gillespie is chairman now,” said Molus in February. “But I haven’t seen an announcement to that effect.”
Other chamber members, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I don’t have any idea what is going on over there,” and “I don’t know what is happening with the board.”
Ethics and awards
Another source of frustration cited by Molus was the chamber giving its annual awards to its own leaders.
Kingery was named Volunteer of the Year in 2010, and this year Gillespie gladly accepted the award, despite being chairman of the board of the organization presenting it.
“I wasn’t happy about us giving ourselves awards,” Molus said. “That is not to take anything away from anybody. Bob is super volunteer. I just don’t think it is appropriate for us to be offering citywide awards and then giving them to our board members.”
While admitting that Kingery felt it was inappropriate for her to be considered for a chamber award, Gillespie said he had no problem accepting the accolades. He also claimed that the awards were not citywide. “Chamber members make the nominations and vote to award them to chamber members,” he said.
John Kennedy, a recently appointed board member, said he was sympathetic to Molus’s concern.
“Frankly, that is the position I would take,” Kennedy said. “I would recuse myself from accepting the award. I think it is silly to be giving them to our board members. That is not what they are for. I will voice my feelings about that in any committee or board meeting where it is discussed.”
Kennedy initially contradicted Gillespie about the chamber-exclusive nature of the awards. “Volunteer of the Year and Sonny Dunn Citizen of the Year nominations can come from anyone in the community and go to anyone in the community,” Kennedy said. Later, he said he had researched the issue and found that Gillespie was correct, that all the chamber awards were nominated and given exclusively to chamber members.
That interpretation of the award rules seems to be contradicted by this year’s slate of nominees for Volunteer of the Year, however, which included a non-member.
An essential organization
Despite confusion about the awards, controversy about Crain and differences of opinion about how quickly a new president should be hired, all former and current board members who commented for this story said they are supporters of the chamber and believe it to be a quality organization that does good things for the city of Maricopa and its businesses.
“I think the board does a good job overall and I hope they continue and that the city continues to support them,” said Molus, who has been a member of the chamber since 2005. “I didn’t resign over the issues I’ve mentioned. It was just time for me to move on and focus more on my business.”
“There was turmoil in the chamber,” said Durkee. “Terri’s resignation contributed to some dysfunction on the board. But it is not the same place as it was even a few weeks ago. Everyone on the board is stepping up to do what needs to be done. We don’t take our responsibilities lightly.”
In terms of a new direction, Gillespie said the former board, of which he was a member, had expended too much effort lobbying for large infrastructure projects that, if funded, would not be
completed for decades, and trying to get air quality standards changed so that Maricopa would not be classified as having bad air.
“Our board can’t affect those issues,” Gillespie said. “We can voice an opinion. We can support the city’s development efforts. But that is not our function. I think over the past two years we lost sight of the bigger picture. A chamber of commerce needs to represent the needs and best interests of its membership. In our case, most are home-based businesses. Most of the rest are small businesses. We need to stay out of politics and get back to the business of small business.”
Going forward, Gillespie’s plans for the chamber include expanding the board from eight to 10 members to bring in more talent, creating a more active membership committee to grow the chamber and getting the organization more involved in coordinating volunteer efforts in the
He said the chamber website is being upgraded to make it work better for members who are looking for information or trying to publicize their business, and that finances have been outsourced to an accounting firm.
Photo by Shannon Williams.
A version of this article was published previously in InMaricopa News.