Dark clouds over QB Chamber hamper tourism reboot

An air of optimism is floating on the warm summer breezes we enjoyed last week, aided by a sustained reduction of COVID infections on the Island, and by new government programs designed to help rejuvenate our local tourism sector.

There is an expectation within the community that independent, tourism-centred coordination be provided by a QB Chamber of Commerce — but it could just as easily be delivered through another Qualicum Beach business association or organization.

Tourism is a major component of Qualicum Beach’s economy, and the QB Chamber of Commerce has made an important contribution to the success of QB’s tourism sector since its incorporation in 1927. Lately, however, it appears that the Chamber is in a tailspin, hindered by competing interests that could hamstring QB’s efforts to recover from the pandemic.

During the recent Council by-election, the partisan action of the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce executive director was brought to our attention by several Chamber members and town residents. That violation of the Chamber’s own by-laws prohibiting partisan support of political candidates, coupled with the Chamber’s deficient support of our tourism sector covered in an earlier article, Chamber of Commerce erasing QB from the tourism map, has led us to continue our analysis of this long-time civic institution, its role and its responsibilities in our community.

While some of our findings are disconcerting, there is considerable opportunity for improvement, especially in strengthening Qualicum Beach’s “visitor economy.”

Follow-up to our report of partisan action by QB Chamber executive director Kim Burden

QB’s Chamber of Commerce by-laws expressly prohibit lending “its support to any candidate seeking public office.”

According to information received from several first-hand sources, including Chamber and Board members, Kim Burden supported and promoted candidate Sarah Duncan in the May 15, 2021 Qualicum Beach Council by-election. Ms. Duncan was one of two Chamber directors running in this by-election and, at that time, she was also the Chair of the QB Chamber of Commerce and, therefore, effectively Mr. Burden’s boss. We broke this story on April 28, 2021 — read more here Chamber of Commerce Executive Director supports Sarah Duncan in QB by-election.

To date, the new Chair of the QB Chamber Board, Matt Breedlove, has not responded to our request for comment on this story. The Chamber Board’s unwillingness to openly and transparently address and resolve Burden’s by-election blunder has now become a serious body blow to the organization.

According to information we have since received from parties with first-hand knowledge of the events, we understand that Mr. Breedlove was advised (apparently by a local lawyer) that Mr. Burden had done nothing wrong in supporting candidate Sarah Duncan because Burden is not a member of the QB Chamber. (Kim Burden has been a paid staff member of the QB Chamber of Commerce since 2019, while also retaining his position as executive director of Parksville’s Chamber.) However, as we explain later in this article, it is not true that Mr. Burden is exempt from requirements to comply with the Chamber’s by-laws simply because he is “not a member.”

Upon further examination, it has become apparent that QB Chamber members and even some Board members have been kept in the dark about Mr. Burden’s partisan conduct, and about the current QB Chamber Chair’s apparent decision to dismiss concerns about Burden’s efforts to influence the recent Council by-election.

Expectations of Transparency and Accountability

The QB Chamber of Commerce staff and leadership have statutory commitments as a federally incorporated entity, some of which are not being met as we will show. They have obligations to their dues paying members, which are also not being satisfactorily met. In addition, the Chamber has a value-for-money accountability to all QB taxpayers and licensed businesses since the Chamber regularly receives funding from the Town’s annual operating budget ($50,453 in 2019 according to the Town’s official Statement of Financial Information). But, most importantly, there is a general expectation that a Chamber of Commerce will balance their private sector agenda with the broader public interest in the community they serve and for which they were incorporated — Qualicum Beach.

QB Chamber of Commerce not compliant with federal legislation

The Boards of Trade Act (the Act) that governs chambers of commerce in Canada stipulates certain requirements that a chamber of commerce must meet. The QB Chamber appears to be in violation of federal law in the following important respects.

  • Section 23 of the Act states “By-laws… are binding on all members of the corporation, its officers and employees, and all other persons lawfully under its control.” This contradicts the ill-informed legal opinion supposedly provided to Matt Breedlove.

Clearly, the by-laws do apply to Kim Burden, the QB Chamber’s executive director. Burden’s support of a single candidate in the recent QB Council by-election, and the lack of action by then-Chair Sarah Duncan and by current Chair Matt Breedlove would all appear to be clear violations of the Chamber by-laws and of the Act. The principle of non-partisanship in public elections is a fundamental expectation of chambers of commerce, designed to thwart corruption.

  • Section 19 (1) states “The meetings of the council of a corporation [i.e. the QB Chamber Board] shall be open to all members of the corporation who may attend those meetings, but not take part in any proceedings thereat.”

We have been told that, in the last few years, members have not been invited or allowed to attend (by Zoom or otherwise) regular meetings of the QB Chamber Board of Directors.

  • Section 19 states (2) “Minutes of the proceedings at all meetings, whether of the council or of the corporation, shall be entered, in books to be kept for that purpose, by the secretary of the corporation.” And (4) “The books referred to in subsection (2) shall be open at all reasonable hours to any member of the corporation free of any charge.”

It appears that members are not currently provided such access to the books, including minutes of the QB Chamber Board of Director meetings. Even some Board members have been unable to access some minutes and other documents.

  • Section 11 of the Act states “The officers of every board of trade shall be a president, vice-president and secretary”… who along with other board members “shall constitute a council of the corporation.”

There is an important role for an organized network of businesses such as a Chamber of Commerce but it needs broad support enabled by full transparency, open communication and strong leadership not compromised by competing or conflicting loyalties and interests.

The QB Chamber of Commerce does not have a named elected officer in the position of Secretary. The duties of a secretary (e.g. taking minutes) are apparently now handled by Kim Burden or delegated to one of his staff members at the Parksville Chamber.

The Secretary position is the most important Officer role in not-for-profits in terms of transparency and accountability to the Board, the membership, the public and the federal authorities. As stated in the QB Chamber’s own by-laws: “In addition to the requirements of the Act, the Secretary shall attend and be the secretary of all meetings of the Council, Members and Committees of the Council… the Secretary shall be the custodian of all books, papers, records, documents and other instruments belonging to the Chamber.”

The mythology of Chambers of Commerce

Thanks to the influence of marketing, many people conceive of their Chamber of Commerce as a benevolent instrument of social cohesion and community development. This spun narrative could use a myth-busting reality check.

  1. The first myth is that a chamber of commerce represents all business interests in a given community. It does not. A chamber of commerce is an organization whose first and primary goal is to promote and support its members, as it should be.
  2. Another myth about chambers of commerce is that they automatically hold a designated position of supremacy with respect to business. A chamber of commerce is only one of several business organizations that often operate within a community; it certainly does not have exclusive domain over economic direction, plans and projects. Examples of other business organizations that often exist in communities to support economic efforts include downtown business associations or DBAs, economic development agencies, and destination marketing organizations. Typically and ideally, none of these organizations have sole domain over economic development in a community; collaboration between such groups and inclusion of the public is the gold standard for healthy economic development.
  3. A third myth is that all dealings and discussions by the board of directors of a chamber of commerce are to be kept private. Chambers of commerce boards may, like other regulated organizations, occasionally be obliged to protect private information, but those instances would be rare, especially in regards to publicly-funded initiatives.
  4. There is a common belief that chambers of commerce are accountable to themselves, and only to themselves (and presumably their members). Chambers of commerce were established by federal law under the Boards of Trade Act, which dictates how chambers of commerce (aka boards of trade) must operate in order to retain their status as a chamber in good standing with the federal governing body.
  5. Finally, the public often believes that a chamber of commerce is a wholly private sector entity when in reality, chambers of commerce regularly obtain public funding for projects.

Can our Chamber of Commerce get back on track?

The QB Chamber of Commerce appears to have shifted its method of operation at the time that Kim Burden was hired in 2019. Prior to that, under former leadership, the QB Chamber performed well regarding governance and regular, appropriate communication with its members as well as the community at large.

Now, there appears to be growing discontent across the QB Chamber membership with Mr. Burden’s actions, the manner in which he conducts QB Chamber business, and the poor results of his efforts to date.

One such indicator is that Qualicum Beach was named by the travel industry site Expedia as one of the top places in Canada to visit in 2018. Today? As expressed by one of our readers in a letter to the editor, “It seems our town is moving backwards, not forward. I was stunned a few days ago when I noticed that Qualicum Beach was not on any of the “Best Places” lists for Canada or even BC anymore, and I looked at quite a few articles on the topic. Searching and searching for Qualicum Beach to show up on a list, any list. Nothing. It’s not even on any list for best places to retire anymore.” 

Another fact of some relevance is that Sarah Duncan, the past-Chair of the QB Chamber and the candidate Mr. Burden supported in the recent QB Council by-election, was responsible for hiring Kim Burden in 2019 to be the executive director of the QB Chamber. Ms. Duncan was also Chair of the QB Chamber Board of Directors when the matter of Mr. Burden’s partisan support (of Ms. Duncan’s candidacy) was raised with the Board, and she apparently declined to allow the matter to be discussed by the Board, let alone resolve the issue satisfactorily.  

Also noticed just this past week, the two QB Chamber directors who each took a leave of absence to run as candidates in the May 15, 2021 QB Council by-election (Sarah Duncan and Jean Young) were removed from the list of the Board of Directors on the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce official website. No information or reasons have been provided to explain the absence of their names. In fact, some Chamber Board members were not even aware that this had happened until contacted by Second Opinion QB.

Who will fill this leadership vacuum?

Well, that’s ultimately up to the business community at large, and to the voting members of the QB Chamber of Commerce, including the Board members who are uncomfortable with the current state of affairs.

For a community like Qualicum Beach, there is an important role for an organized network of businesses that prosper from and promote the Town’s appeal to visitors, investors and would-be residents. Such an organization needs broad support enabled by full transparency, open communication and strong leadership not compromised by competing or conflicting loyalties and interests.

The challenge for the new QB Chamber Board is to regain credibility and trust.

The existing QB Chamber of Commerce isn’t meeting the bar by any measure. It may be time for Qualicum Beach to untangle its unholy alliance with the Parksville Chamber, and re-assert its self-determination.

There is an expectation within the community that independent, tourism-centred coordination be provided by a QB Chamber of Commerce — but it could just as easily be delivered through another Qualicum Beach business association or organization.