It’s time to defund the SLO Chamber of Commerce

October 25, 2020
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


Thanks to Jeff Buckingham’s recent opinion piece in CCN calling for approval of Measure G-20 to increase our sales taxes, there’s something else to think about: the inordinate influence that the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce has on our City Council and how heavily it depends on city funding for much of its activities.

Buckingham has been a long-time booster of the chamber having served both as its past president and it’s 2018 Citizen of the Year. Sandy Sigurdson, who signed the Yes on Measure G-20 ballot argument, served for 10 years as the chamber’s executive director for Leadership SLO to groom future candidates for the City Council. It’s not surprising that both would be advocates for raising taxes to continue funding the chamber.

After all, the chamber receives over $300,000 in taxpayer’s funds per year through the city budget and it’s gotten hooked on that revenue for quite some time. Should Measure G-20 be defeated, forcing our City Council to finally become fiscally responsible, the chamber’s funding from the city’s budget might have to be cut or eliminated.

It wasn’t always this way

When I served on the San Luis Obispo City Council back in the 1970s, the chamber was a small operation that received a small annual sum from the city to promote economic development.

Yet during that time, the chamber was the driving force behind opposing city efforts to revitalize downtown San Luis Obispo. It fought the planting of our now mature street trees, the city’s sign controls, and even the completion of Mission Plaza that ignited the revitalization of our downtown. I remember our then visionary Mayor Ken Schwartz decrying the chamber’s constant fight against improving our community.

Back then, our City Council practiced true fiscal responsibility. We were able to accomplish many capital improvement projects including the construction of Mission Plaza and many significant parks and public infrastructure projects without pushing for sales tax increase.

Then along came Dave Garth, the SLO Chamber’s long-standing executive director, who grew the chamber into the political machine that runs our city today. It’s Leadership SLO organization has allowed the chamber to essentially become a political party funded largely by those chamber-friendly members of our City Council.

The chamber strongly backs the candidates it wants and in return those elected to the City Council reward the chamber with over $300,000 of taxpayer funds. If that isn’t quid quo pro, what is?

One needs only to look at this season’s political contributions to see where the chamber’s bread is buttered, including the maximum donations given to Mayor Heidi Harmon by Dave Garth and Eric Justesen, whose wife also served as a former executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Is this any way to run our city?

In recent years, our council has been running our once fine town into the ground: starving our downtown of parking by eliminating public parking lots for two hotel developments without replacing the lost parking, approving high-density buildings on steroids with minimal parking, and demeaning our neighborhoods by ramming bike paths through them and wiping out on- street parking along our narrow residential streets. All have served to diminish the livability of our community.

Also, on this and previous council’s watches, our once vital downtown has become a dirty husk of its former self. With rampant homelessness, aggressive panhandling, and so many vacant storefronts plaguing our downtown, it’s a different place today.

Toss in the constant social unrest that our mayor has invited into our downtown (at great expense in police overtime), only to disrupt, harm, and attempt to extort local businesses struggling to survive, and what do you have? A downtown where an increasing number of local residents now find themselves no longer comfortable being there.

Our downtown doesn’t need any more challenges than it already has. Then the city asks voters to permanently triple the city’s sales tax rate when businesses are most vulnerable. And it does this at the same time as State Proposition 15 might just pass just a week from now, resulting in significant rent increases by commercial landlords to cover the accelerated property taxes on their properties.

This double whammy of taxation could be the final straw for many of our local merchants.

And in the face of all this, what does our so-called “business friendly” chamber do? It’s the lead supporter of the sales tax increase that would allow our mayor and City Council to spend $22.6 million in general fund revenue on other things like backing the mayor’s ideological social agenda, increasing management salaries, putting bike paths where they don’t belong, and– of course– continuing to fund the Chamber of Commerce.

Exercising fiscal responsibility

It’s time for a change in our city’s governance. Should Measure G-20 go down to defeat, let the City Council’s first act be the elimination of funding to the Chamber of Commerce. It’s finally time the chamber be funded solely by its members rather than us taxpayers.


You know, you can still understand the specific mission of what the Chamber does for businesses in San Luis and support them if you see the value and still Vote Yes on 20 if you see the value in that.


As I recall, the citizens of SLO told Mr. Gurnee that his 50-year old antiquated approach to being on City Council back in the ’70s didn’t resonate with voters in the mayoral race two years ago. If memory serves he lost 70-30. That as much as anything will tell us how much to value Mr. Gurnee’s opinion.


I’ve worked in downtown SLO for 30 years in a business that has existed for 65 years. I long ago chose to not participate in membership of the C of C. In many years of membership this organization’s only direct communication was to beg for annual dues. We’ve never been asked our opinions or invited to join in any kind of discussion regarding the viability of the downtown. And don’t forget, as well as the C of C, there is the Downtown Business Association, which has boundaries that exclude many small businesses who have expressed desire to join. We used to walk to great local restaurants downtown but stopped doing so as the ‘organized’ panhandling has reached a level of ridiculousness. Now, we drive to restaurants away from downtown. I’ve been here my entire life and am saddened to see what SLO has become. Mr. Gurnee has pointed out a serious issue and those who are interested in revitalization of what was once a gem should take note and action.


Increasing bike paths improves the livability of a city, and doesn’t “demean” the neighborhood.

Adam Trask

I thought the C of C was the backbone of the Republican Party. It must be suffering from arthritis and bone spurs for Mr. Gurnee to criticize. I guess that when the Republicans hold ZERO state wide offices and they are only small minorities in the Assembly and Senate, back biting occurs and the cannibals come out in force.

Dan Carp

Exposing the Chamber for what it is….thanks Keith.

Join me in voting NO on Measure G-20.

Eyes Everywhere

I read in New Times that the city of SLO spends money on tourism promotion. The Chamber also spends money on tourism promotion. And we have the county wide tourism operation. So why do we need three different groups all with the same goal? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the city to stop spending tax dollars and letting the Chamber do something?


So right on, perfect analysis of our paralysis. Vote no on G20 and encourage the chamber to mind its own business on its own dime.


There , you’ve gone and done it! You called out the Chamber for the what it has become, anything BUT a solid voice for careful business advocacy. That’s why I will not belong, nor support the little partisan club it has become. Vote No on G