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In Our Opinion: Chamber Of Commerce President Needs To Clean House To Restore Its Integrity

New members of the Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce receive a plaque, upon which is engraved the following: Dedicated Subscriber to the Principles of Honesty, Integrity, Community Service.

The irony of that is not lost on us as we consider the results of a recent Franklin Reporter & Advocate investigation into a situation involving the Chamber and the township Board of Education, in which the board president was excluded from his position’s traditional seat on the Chamber’s Board of Directors.

The Chamber’s integrity – what there is of it, depending on who you talk to – took a hit as the result of that episode. At this point, the only remedy to what ails the Chamber is a strategic housecleaning conducted by the Chamber’s new president.

To recap: Our review of a series of emails obtained through Open Public Records Act requests showed that even though the Chamber was notified at least twice – through email and a telephone call from two different people – that board president Ed Potosnak would be the board’s designee as a Chamber director – a practice that had been followed with at least the previous two board presidents – some chamber directors actively recruited another, seemingly unwitting, member of the school district staff to take that position.

Emails show that former interim schools Superintendent Lee Seitz was asked by Chamber director Julia West Johnson if he’d like to be the district’s liaison to the Chamber. Seitz, who was due to leave the district at the end of June, declined because of his short time remaining in the position, and instead recommended administrator Orvyl Wilson for the position.

Wilson said he attended his first meeting and was informed by then-Chamber president Leon Hughes that he would be voting in that meeting’s executive board election, in which Directors voted for the president, two vice presidents, secretary and treasurer.

That’s important to note because Seitz said he considered the position as being advisory, not representing the Board of Education and not having a vote in Chamber matters. In fact, Seitz specifically said that had he known the position was to be a voting one, he would have directed the Chamber to Potosnak, the board president.

In addition to West Johnson, the person who emails show was involved in this recruitment was Chamber secretary Tiffany Delaney, who is also the township administration’s representative to the Chamber’s board. Emails show Delaney first contacted a district elementary school principal to see if he was interested in being the district’s representative to the Chamber, then facilitated West Johnson’s call to Seitz.

Wilson’s appointment to the Chamber’s board was acknowledged in an email by a former school board president, Eva Nagy, who is an “honorary lifetime member” of the Chamber’s Board of Directors and serves as the head of its policy committee. Certainly Nagy, who was board president for 15 of her 22 years on the school board, was aware of the precedent she was helping to break.

We still don’t know why Potosnak was excluded from the traditional seat filled by the school board president, or why Seitz was not told that the position to which he referred Wilson was, in fact, voting. We don’t know because the main players in this incident – Delaney, West Johnson and Nagy – have doggedly refused to answer questions about it. Hughes, too, has refused to answer questions directed to him.

The election from which Potosnak was excluded resulted in the election of a new Chamber president, Michael Harris. Harris threw his hat into the ring relatively late in the nomination process, a move emails show he made after a conversation with Delaney and because, as he told the FR&A, he felt he could do a better job than the other two candidates, one of whom was the incumbent president.

Harris has repeatedly told the FR&A in emails and in person that his desire is to rebuild what is now an anemic Chamber of Commerce – the Chamber has reportedly lost more than 340 members over the last several years – and build it into one of the strongest Chambers in the state.

We wish him luck. And while there’s no indication that Harris was part of the activity that resulted in this mess, it’s now his job to clean it up.

As evidenced by the tremendous loss of membership, the Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce’s reputation is in tatters. Rebuilding that reputation – let alone the membership base – is going to take hard work, some of which will be painful.

If Harris is sincere about his goal to rejuvenate the Chamber – and we have seen nothing at this point to indicate he is not – then he must clean house:

  • Harris must request the resignation from the Board of Directors of those involved in this fiasco: Delaney, Nagy and West Johnson.
  • Harris must also call for the resignation from the board of Hughes, whose leadership, quite frankly, has been a disaster for the Chamber, and who has been a polarizing force within the Chamber.
  • While we’re on the topic of restoring the Chamber’s integrity: Although he apparently had nothing to do with the school board president incident, Harris must also ask for the resignation of 1st vice president Peter Stavrianidis. The jewelry store owned by Stavrianidis in 2013 pleaded guilty to 10 violations of the state’s cash-for-gold consumer protection laws – after being hit with 439 violations by the state – and paid a $5,000 fine. If we are to trust the “integrity” and “honesty” of an organization, we must place in positions of leadership those who are above reproach.

It’s all about perception. If the public perceives a lack of integrity or a lack of honesty, or just a whiff of impropriety among the members of an organization, that organization is doomed.

Once those individuals have been removed from the board, an election must be held to replace them. And then, to completely restore our faith in the Chamber, a re-vote for the executive board – with Potosnak representing the school board – must be held.

If Harris does that, he will show that he is a man of his word. We sincerely hope this proves to be the case.

 

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