By Tiffany Gray
What is a Chamber of Commerce? A Chamber of Commerce is a voluntary partnership of businesses and professionals working together to build a healthy economy and improve the quality of life in a community. As a Chamber works to accomplish these goals, it must champion and balance many different functions: economic developer and planner, tourist information center, business spokesperson, economic counselor and teacher, government relations specialist, human resources adviser, and public relations practitioner. The goal of any Chamber is to help further interests of small businesses in a local area.
The Dolores Chamber also adds event planning into their functions, by putting on Escalante Days, Summerfest, Harvest Fest, Drive-In Movies, Farmers Market, and promoting all Dolores Events. Big community events are not a typical thing that Chambers put on, other than their own business banquets.
There has been contention between the Town of Dolores Board and the Dolores Chamber this past summer for the Chamber allowing political booths and certain groups into their parades and events. This is nothing out of the ordinary at any event, take a look around at other towns, every community event has people giving out campaign info, asking people to sign petitions, or running for office. The Montezuma County Republicans even had a booth at the Dolores River Festival just a few years ago. But this was the year of people getting offended and sending letters to the Dolores Town Board. On an event that the town does not run and does not control who is in it.
After Escalante Days, the Town Board started talking about ways they could pressure and limit exactly who the Chamber allows at any of their events. Only to be told by their attorney that they could not limit freedom of speech. The Chamber is a separate entity and is not controlled by the Town.
Which began the pressure and manipulation to coerce the Chamber Board indirectly.
At a Dolores Town Board meeting, held October 11th, there was an attempt to remove funding for the Chamber. A suggestion was made to remove a “line item” in the budget of $5,000 for the Dolores Chamber. During the conversations between board members, Mayor ProTem Val Truelsen noted, "This hit on the Chamber budget, it's not a sensible thing when we're talking about the Chamber as a main motive of our businesses here in town. Do we not care any more than that for our businesses that we take money away from the Chamber?”
To which Trustee Jennifer Stark's response was, "Listen Trustee Truelsen, I'm just gonna say...until something can get worked out, that the Chamber has every right to produce and host whatever events they want, but until there is some relief from the polarization that has occurred from these, I am very strictly not comfortable with having a line item that directly funds the Chamber. I am just fine with a special projects line item that anybody can apply to, including the Chamber.”
Val Truelsen responded, "That sounds like out of the Cancel Culture."
Jennifer Stark, "It sounds like a reasonable solution for an entity to be able to do what they want to do and for the town to feel comfortable that they are not in a polarizing situation." Sheila Wheeler, "I agree." Val Truelsen, "So freedom of speech is polarizing?" Sheila Wheeler, "Jesus." Jennifer Stark, "It is not, but money can be." Here is where we begin to see the one-sided bias and discrimination towards the Chamber as they go into conversations about changing the way they give support. Instead of giving general support to the Chamber as in years past, they wanted to change the way that support is handled and now want to require the Chamber to provide a special request with a plan on how any monies they want will be spent. This request will then be approved or denied or have stipulations added by the town. Trustee Melissa Watters asked, "Would there be others on this list that would be then be taken out [of the budget] specifically, or are these...do you know what I'm saying, are you now saying the bike club also has to apply?"
Town Manager Ken Charles responds, "No. The only one that this would affect would be the Chamber."
Jennifer Stark added, "I think that general operations is exactly what I disagree with. I do not want to see money going to the Chamber for just general operations. I don't know about other entities on the list, we haven't had any other community input that aligned difficult situations with town funding. So I don't know.” Mayor Chad Wheelus went on to say about completely defunding the Chamber, "I agree with Jen that on the sense that we put some stipulations with it, projects that we as a town are okay with and feel comfortable with, that the town is not supporting political ambitions or political entities one way or the other, but I don't feel like that was the intent of it, to take away all funding from the Chamber." On November 8th, the Town of Dolores had another Town Meeting, and a continuation of the discussion on funding the Chamber. Jennifer Stark begins the budget conversations with, "I see that the Chamber budget of $5000 is back in, I see that it doesn't have any restrictions.” Budgets generally do not show restrictions. It was then suggested that a footnote be put in just for the Chamber. It was stated that they have never added footnotes to any budget. Once again, clear bias and discrimination as this same request has not been done before and not asked of anything else on the budget. After more discussion, Jennifer Stark remarked, "Well, if it was me I would put it back to zero."
Val Truelsen responded, "If you're going to put the Chamber money to zero, aren't you therefore saying the businesses located within the Town of Dolores aren't worth supporting?"
Jennifer Stark answered, "I think the original concern was that there were letters and comments that were received by the Trustees about some of the Chambers' ability to host events, which is fine, they can do, and whether or not the town's money was supporting all of those events in their entirety. And it is difficult, a Chamber is allowed to do what they like to do as a committee, it is difficult as a town entity that is using public dollars from all the constituents if it is not designated appropriately and is a line item in a general fund, it is difficult to say what it is and is not going to and that's what started the conflict."
Val Truelsen then added, "In other words, censorship."
Jennifer Stark responded, "It has nothing to do with censorship as much as it just has to do with each entity should have to move forward in the best way that represents the people that they are elected and/or appointed to serve." Trustee Stark openly supported defunding the Chamber. The question is posed, why would any Trustee seek to remove funding and/or place restrictions on the very thing that brings them business? A town operates like a business in this aspect, every time a sale is made the business collects a sales tax. Sales tax is the largest chunk of the Town's revenue. Shouldn't the businesses get a say as to how their sales tax revenue is being used? Is this not against the oath they took as Trustees?
When I spoke with several community members and business owners, a vast majority said they are fed up with the Town board. They see the potential of what some members of the Town Board are attempting to do could result in creating financial harm to their small business. Some of them see how Jennifer Stark's hard push to remove the Chamber’s funding is only creating further division. She is essentially trying to penalize the Chamber for allowing freedom of expression in a non-violent manner to happen at their events, since the Town Board has not been successful in dictating to the Chamber on who they should allow.
Jerry Whited posted on social media, stating, "the Chamber and a lot of great people volunteer to run events that support the businesses and the legacy of this town, and to have a town board that does not support that is sickening.”
James Biard, who was once a Dolores Town Trustee, also posted a comment stating, “Excluding any group from something you let others participate in is being a bully or a racist...Board members please know your role, you are not our conscious or morality leaders.”
We're not sure how the Dolores Chamber Board will respond to this. So far they have been silent. Should they tell the Town that they will not be doing any events next year? Should they agree to the restrictions being given so as to access funds the town has given freely before? Should the Chamber start censoring who they allow at events? Should they fight or should they stand down? I'm sure if you're a citizen of Dolores, you can use your voice to tell the Town your opinion.
Taking things away from people until they agree to do what you say isn't giving them a 'choice'. It's punishing them until they concede to your demands. Normally we would refer to this type of behavior as manipulation and abuse. The Chamber was just doing what any organization should be doing: refusing to censor people just because you do not agree with the message.
The next Town of Dolores meeting will be the 22nd of November. They have been attending by Zoom. Access to the zoom link can be found by going to: https://townofdolores.colorado.gov/town-board-meetings
The town of Dolores will be holding municipal elections in April of 2022. The terms of four Town Trustee positions will be expiring at that time. Jennifer Stark, Tracy Murphy, Melissa Watters and Mayor Chad Wheelus are all eligible to run for re-election to their Trustee positions.