The Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce is tiptoeing through a minefield over its support for the proposed Rock Creek mine in Montana.
On Thursday, the vice chairman of the chamber’s legislative committee walked out of its meeting after chairman Ben Wolfinger refused to allow any discussion of the chamber’s stance favoring the mine.
Don Morgan, the committee’s vice chairman, promised to complain to the chamber’s board of directors about the way the meeting was run.
“This is behavior that is not consistent with the chamber,” Morgan said after stamping out of the meeting. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
At issue is testimony that chamber member Lori Barnes presented at a Feb. 11 public hearing in Sandpoint on Asarco Inc.’s Rock Creek mine proposal. Barnes, representing the Coeur d’Alene chamber, spoke in favor of the project.
What she didn’t say was that she also is a consultant for Asarco.
Coeur d’Alene businesswoman Nancy Lynne, who also attended the Sandpoint hearing in opposition to the mine, raised a complaint that as a member of the Coeur d’Alene chamber, she never had been consulted about the chamber’s stance.
“They talk about jobs and tax dollars, but they evade the issue that it’s another state,” Lynne said. “The mine is over 100 miles away…They (the miners) aren’t going to come here.”
Morgan, who didn’t know about the chamber’s testimony at the Sandpoint hearing until reading it in the newspaper, invited Lynne to speak to the legislative committee Thursday. But she never got the opportunity.
“I have been excluded from finding out what’s going on,” Lynne said. “It seems like there’s a big suppression, a cover-up.”
Far from it, said chamber leadership.
“I advised Ben (Wolfinger) not to have outside comments until the committee and leadership had a chance to review the issue,” said Judy Drake, chamber president.
Wolfinger and chamber director Pat McGaughey cited the threat of litigation for the decision not to discuss the issue. The threat, they said, came from Lynne. She denies it.
Lynne said she talked to an attorney, who is also a chamber member, about whether the chamber followed the right procedures in having Barnes testify.
“It seems to me this red herring about some bogus litigation was designed to keep the truth from coming out,” Lynne said.
The truth, according to McGaughey, is that Barnes was presenting the chamber’s policy on natural resource jobs.
“If people live up to the letter of the law, they should be allowed to do their work in the natural resource industry,” McGaughey said, paraphrasing the chamber’s policy. “That is the message I hope was delivered.”
But McGaughey said he did not know the exact content of Barnes’ testimony. Barnes initiated the chamber’s involvement when she asked Wolfinger whether the chamber would submit a letter stating its position, McGaughey said.
Wolfinger has considered hiring Barnes as his campaign manager for a legislative bid that he has yet to officially announce.
“She’s given me some advice,” Wolfinger said. “There’s been no money exchanged.”
Wolfinger wrote the statement, and asked Drake to sign it. Drake had McGaughey review it. Because Wolfinger couldn’t make it to the public hearing, he asked Barnes to go.
“Should Lori have spoken for the chamber? Yes and no,” McGaughey said. “She’s earned her stripes…but it confused the issue because of her relationship with Asarco.”