First of all, I apologize for the lack of a column last week. I was traveling in Californ-I-yea and thought I could pull my old slacker skills out and write something for late publication on Sunday's return train trip. Of course I'd forgotten that The Bloomington Alternative is going to a new publication format that includes real paper and everything and that suddenly we had much stricter deadlines. It won't happen again. I promise.

What I was going to write about last week, and what I am going to write about today, was a rather remarkable sequence of events transpiring within and between Bloomington's city government and our community's pavement-is-progress adherents. It's novel that there is a distinction at all between those groups, as there hadn't been in previous two administrations. It's also novel that, for once, the pavement-is-progress adherents appear to be stumbling badly.

Beginning at the end

This is a story best told in reverse. On February 23rd appeared a curious letter to the editor of the Herald Times, written by Chamber of Commerce president Steve Howard. In his letter, Howard started:

Your Feb. 14 story regarding Mayor Kruzan's first year in office did not comprehensively represent what I said during the extended conversation I had with the reporter.

Howard then went on to distance his personal views from the official positions of the Chamber (something not reported in the original story). More important, he used up the rest of his meager ration of words explaining that the "comprehensive" part left out of the story were positive statements he had made about the Mayor's tenure.

If you just read that letter and nothing else (including the original story), you'd have the impression that Mr. Howard really went to town on the Mayor's record in the Feb. 14 story, that it came off as the official Chamber position, and that someone above Mr. Howard's pay grade had taken our beleaguered president out behind the woodshed for a regrooving lesson in civic tact.

And you'd be right.

Apologize, or else

Four days after the infamous "Feb 14th" article came out, the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce drafted the following letter to the editor:

To the editor:

As members of the executive committee of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, we want to respond to your February 14 story on Mayor Mark Kruzan's first year.

Quotes and paraphrased comments attributed to Chamber president Steve Howard reflect his personal opinions only and not those of the executive committee, board of directors or membership.

Since late summer, the mayor has attended meetings of the chamber's executive committee and board of directors, and the mayor and the executive committee have engaged in a candid and healthy discussion of shared issues of interest and concern.

Over that same period the mayor has met with Steve Howard privately, sought out chamber representation on city boards and commissions, and supported chamber initiatives to the city council resulting in recently publicized grant funding to both our Small Business Development and Franklin Initiative programs.

It is the goal of the executive committee and board of directors of the chamber to work collaboratively with the mayor to improve our relationship with his office and to develop linkages that both support our diverse membership and improve the quality of life in our community.

[SIGNED: Five members of the Board of Directors]

It doesn't require a Ph.D. in linguistics to translate that (never-printed) letter. Mr. Howard spoke out of school and exceeded his authority. But even more remarkable than the board's vote of no-confidence was the fact that board chairman, Larry Crabb, originally told Howard himself to forward the board's letter onto the paper. Oh, the humility!

Obviously, between the board's draft of its own letter and the eventual letter published from Mr. Howard, it was decided to take a little steam off of the Chamber's president and to let him save a little public face.

But it didn't work.

Man the pumps!

Immediately after Howard's letter appeared (and remember, it was remarkably watered down from the board's version), the pavement-as-progress crowd initiated damage control. But it was clear that such control would be haphazard at best because, quite frankly, they were in shock. Fifth Third Bank Vice President and chairman of the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation Bonnie Patton wrote:

I have followed the HT article, response from the Mayor, and Steve Howard's letter to the editor this morning. I have also had copies of the Chamber Executive Committee planned response [printed above] and Mike Carmin's email to you forwarded to me. As Chair of the BEDC, it concerns me that the Board is sacrificing Steve Howard by stating that he did not speak on behalf of the Board.

Sacrifice? I'd say they took the poor man out to the public square, put a scarlet letter on his chest, and whipped four horses in different directions.

Bonnie wasn't the only member to step up for the President. Ex-mayor John Fernandez also stepped in, although not in defense of Steve Howard per se, but of "the organization" (meaning the real-estate machine located at the nexus of the Chamber and BEDC interface):

I was very sorry to see the letter from Steve Howard in today's HT. Whether you love him or hate him, doing that letter is a huge mistake for that organization.

Whether you love him or hate him? OUCH. The Ex-mayor springboarded from that damning praise into a rant about civility in the community, a rant as entertaining as it was disingenuous coming from a man generally considered to be completely unwilling to entertain any viewpoint not in concert with his own. But that's a topic for a future column.

Who's out of touch?

The response of some BEDC/Chamber insiders to the latest installment of Howardgate tells us volumes about just how insular and out of touch with public sentiment is the real-estate club and how a kind of toxic provincialism pervades the organization. What's even more telling is that the events of last week are nothing new. It's only now, however, that they're having any effect.

In late 2000, Steve Howard made an earlier series of ill-considered remarks, concerning the I-69 controversy. And, like today, they got him in a bit of trouble. This time not with the Chamber's board, but with the BEDC itself:

Dear Steve:

I am writing on behalf of the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation Executive Committee to express concern regarding the I-69 update given by you ... a number of fellow members of the Board of Directors took offense at your remarks concerning incivility. ... It was unfortunate that during the presentation [you] chose to single out specific elected officials in a derisive manner.

... you should be aware of the feedback and request that any future presentations be more sensitive to the diversity of opinion [in the community] and take the high ground with regard to all remarks.

Sincerely, Ron TarsiPresident, BEDC Board of Directors

Either Mr. Howard didn't get the earlier memo, or his event horizon is shorter than four years.

The local newspaper wrote an editorial a month or so back, scolding Andy Ruff and Mark Stoops for their reputation for "incivility" — something that the record does not support, as I wrote about in an earlier CIVITAS. On the other hand, the current president of the Chamber of Commerce does have a, very real, record of incivility. In fact, his record is so bad that his own organizations have censured him for that incivility.

Yet there are those who continue with their heads in the sand, including Ms. Patton, John Fernandez, and the Herald Times, contending that the attitude problem isn't with the pavement-is-progress crowd but with the progress-is-progress crowd (also know as the "everybody does better when everybody does better" caucus, i.e. current Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, the current City Council, the current Monroe County Council).

I think the record speaks otherwise. What's more, I think that the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce understands this, as evidenced by their suppressed letter. I think the Chamber, like the BEDC, has become hostage to a narrow set of real-estate interests, interests that don't reflect the interests of their broader constituencies, as they exist or as they could be (as Mark Kruzan pointed out, the Chamber's 1,000 members constitute only one third of all Bloomington businesses).

It's time for a change.

CIVITAS is a weekly column of civic commentary by Gregory Travis. He can be reached at civitas@littlebear.com