Rule in dealing with government: ‘Don’t be afraid to say it’
Meetings that began at 8:30 a.m. Thursday were winding down about 5 o’clock when, near the end of a panel discussion of mayors, Juan Carlos Bermudez gave those among nearly 800 Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce members still present a lesson to tape to their refrigerator doors and heed regularly.
“Business people need to be very clear what business needs from us,” the Doral mayor told the chamber’s annual goals conference. “So say it – don’t be afraid to say it.”
It was absolutely the right message. In recent years the chamber had been pussyfooting around government, not bad at currying favor but not good about bringing a unified business message to local government about what business needs, and weak about taking strong stands that not everyone – not even every member – is going to like.
And so the voice of the business community was more a whisper than a strong statement.
Well, the folks who remained to hear Mayor Bermudez have just been told that, on the municipal level at least, government wants to hear what business wants and needs. The doors are open – walk through them. Tell the mayors what will help make local businesses thrive and far more important, what will make the mayors’ communities thrive.
Once upon a time there was no mistaking what the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce wanted. The late Alvah Chapman Jr., who ran the Miami Herald and later the Knight Newspapers chain, was also the moving voice of the chamber. With four other business leaders, he set the tone and the chamber was vocal about what leadership wanted. The chamber then was a Miami-Dade powerhouse.
Over time after Mr. Chapman left the picture, however, the chamber became more and more egalitarian, more inclusive, more democratic but far less willing to take serious local positions that were going to upset anyone. If everyone agreed, the chamber took a stand – but you don’t need to take a stand if everyone already agrees. It’s on the tougher issues that the chamber abrogated its leadership.
But by keeping everyone happy with it, the chamber also had less authority. A serious chamber of commerce doesn’t follow, it leads.
As the chamber became totally non-controversial and non-abrasive, it also lost members. You can judge which is the cause and which is the effect, or whether the simultaneous changes were just coincidental.
Perhaps that’s changing, as it should. The day-long goals conference was the first time in five years that chamber members actually set goals at their annual meeting. Perhaps not coincidentally, as chamber CEO and President Alfred Sanchez noted at the meeting, this is also the first time in many years that chamber membership has actually risen.
“We are really on the move with political advocacy, and that’s only going to get sharper,” Mr. Sanchez told members earlier in the day. Bravo.
There’s plenty to advocate for. The mayors’ panel and the chamber sessions as a whole echoed with dissatisfaction with state government’s whittling away of home rule in the county and its municipalities.
That’s not just window dressing. It ranges from the state ripping apart the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority – under the tutelage of several local legislators – down to so-far-failed state attempts to keep municipalities from controlling locally such environmental issues as waste plastic.
The chamber did work hard trying to preserve the expressway authority, Mr. Sanchez said – not all chamber efforts to help this community are going to succeed. That doesn’t mean the group shouldn’t try – or that it should ignore what happened to the authority.
“That was an atrocity,” banker Carlos Fernandez-Guzman told the chamber’s transportation committee. “Those folks [in the legislature] need to be held accountable.”
That could be done with the chamber putting its political muscle behind legislative performance that helps the community. It would take courage that the chamber hasn’t exhibited much in years, and again could be controversial. But could that be worse than suffering in silence legislation that works against the legislators’ own community?
The words of Mayor Bermudez told the chamber what to do loud and clear: “Just say it – don’t be afraid to say it.” The chamber – and the community – will be better for it.