WeHo Chamber of Commerce President/CEO fired - over smoking?
The West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce released their president and chief executive officer, Sharon Sandow, on Friday.
Charges came in over the weekend that "renegade Board members acting at the city’s behest" sacked Ms. Sandow because of her strong leadership of the city’s commercial interests that stand opposed to the outdoor smoking ban Mayor John Heilman and council member Abbe Land introduced in December.
Chamber Chair Joan Henehan, reached in New York, confirmed Ms. Sandow’s departure, but would comment no further, saying she would speak to WeHo News only upon her arrival back on the West coast late this week.
Ms. Henehan did not disclose which Board members, and under what authority, fired Ms. Sandow.
She declined to answer any question put to her regarding Chamber business or the Sharon Sandow firing.
Ms. Sandow stood at the Chamber’s helm since September, 2007, replacing Mindy Bradish, who left five months earlier to take a mirror position for her hometown’s Chamber of Commerce.
Confirming her firing, Ms. Sandow would say only, "I’m sad, but also grateful for the chance to work with the people and businesses of the Chamber." She declined to comment further.
Apparently Ms. Henehan left it to unnamed former Chamber Chairs to do the firing, as she was in New York at the time.
According to several independent sources, a Board of Governor close to John Heilman was seen giving Ms. Sandow a dressing down in January and another "renegade Board member" began interviewing new President/CEO candidates for Ms. Sandow’s job - before any decision had been made by the Board as a whole on how to approach their issues with Ms. Sandow.
A longtime Chamber of Commerce Board member, who came forward on the condition of anonymity, charged that Board leadership would make Ms. Sandow the "fall girl for the Chamber’s poor finances. Don’t let them do that; tell the real reason."
The harshest charge came from a person very close to the center of the jockeying over the outdoor smoking ban, who also required anonymity to feel free to talk.
That source said, "[City Manager Paul Arevalo] asked the Chamber to tone down their opposition to the smoking ban, and [Ms. Land and Mayor Heilman] felt that [Ms. Sandow] was hurting them with the business community, that that was unacceptable, and they even went to certain Board members to threaten them they would pull the money the City gives the Chamber."
The City gives the Chamber of Commerce $35,000 each year as a grant for infrastructure support and services rendered as a civic booster and partner in developing the city’s economy.
WeHo News called Paul Arevalo to confirm whether pressure had been applied to the Chamber because of its fierce opposition to the proposed smoking ban. He has not yet returned that call.
Council member John Duran expressed outrage and suspicion.
"It’s a terrible shame, because Sharon Sandow was a fierce advocate for the business community. The Chamber of Commerce should not be acting as a puppet of City Hall; it should be independent and be faithful to the businesses in the community."
He pointed out that City Hall regulates those businesses, so naturally conflict will occur.
"The Chamber’s duty is to advocate for and defend the businesses, even against City Hall."
He promised to look more closely into the subject to discover what role her "fierce advocacy against the smoking ban" held in her firing. "If that’s true, then it’s really not an independent Chamber of Commerce, it’s an arm of City Hall."
Those who would lay blame on Ms. Sandow for the Chamber’s finances enjoy a case - membership and revenue has been down at the privately funded non-profit that fosters commercial growth.
Yet, that, say some critics, will only give the Board cover for firing the politically savvy Pres./CEO (she came from the City Council Office of LA Council member Cindy Miscikowski) who had begun to create a powerful commercial voice to balance out the sometimes anti-business power wielded by City Hall.
That can only fail, one Chamber Board source claims. "They’ll try to lay blame [the finances and lack of money in the bank] on her, but she wasn’t the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) these last four years; the finances are a wreck, in part, because so much money has been wasted on insider deals made between Board members."
That source asserted they saw Ms. Sandow "micro-managed by a troika of Board members close to John Heilman, Todd Elliott, David Eichmann and Mark Lehman. They called her time and again, dogged her with what she should be doing or who she should be making friends with," they said.
Calling it "a real scandal," that same source charged the insiders on the Board with insider dealing using Chamber money to support one another through fundraising schemes.
They pointed at two recent contract payments (totaling at least $10,000) of which they were aware "for the production of fundraising events that failed to come off," leaving the Chamber out not only the production fees but without any funds raised.
WeHo News reported on the "postponement" of the Sunset Strip Billboard Awards (or Stripper Awards), officially announced in August, 2009 and postponed in October - only days before it was to have taken place.
The other program paid for but not delivered, says the source, "Tables of Ten: Dining for a Cause" was a fundraiser successfully held by the Avenues of Art & Design and Pacific Design Center in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 that failed to take place in 2010.
Allegedly, those fees went to a Board member beginning an event production company.
Other critics came forward with more fundamental complaints - that the Chamber was "old-think" and too navel-gazing and not creative or pro-active enough.
Steve Afriat told WeHo News he had left the Chamber two years ago despite over two decades involvement be cause "it was an utter waste of time. Nothing got done at meetings, because no one stood up to give leadership and set policy."
He said the Board lacked for one creative thought among them. "There’s no creativity in fundraising, no innovative thinking in how to encourage - or why to encourage - new businesses to join..."
He slammed the Board members for showing up at mixers and events but not doing anything to till the soil, plant seeds and harvest a strongly knit business community
Mr. Afriat says, "The Board expects a president/CEO to pull a financially sound organization out of her ear, and that’s not how it works." He said the Board must offer guidance and fundraising support.
He said it was "outrageous that the City of West Hollywood sits on 1.9 square miles of golden turf like Times Square and Chicago’s Golden Mile, and they have a Chamber that does no good for the business community."
Mr. Afriat saved his sharpest criticism for the Board Chair, Joan Henehan, with whom he vied for the Board Chairmanship in 2008.
About her he said, "What a sad commentary it is when the Chair of the Board is missing [to fire the president/CEO], that other people are either doing the hatchet work for her or she’s incapable of leading the Chamber and relying on the past Chairs to do it for her.
That’s an embarrassment."