Beaverton Chamber officials resigned amid possible Hillsboro merger
The Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce's announcement last month that it would unilaterally rebrand as the "Washington County Chamber of Commerce" raised questions about why other chambers in the county weren't involved.
According to the Hillsboro Chamber's June 24 announcement, only one out of eight other chambers in Washington County that were consulted expressed an interest last September in furthering conversations about sharing resources and enhancing collaboration to "provide a unified business voice."
But the Beaverton Chamber wasn't ultimately a part of the rebranding effort.
The resignations of a longtime employee and a board member at the Beaverton Chamber earlier this year suggest that personnel disputes and frustrations with leadership may have played a role in the two chambers deciding not to rebrand together.
In March, the chambers entered into a shared leadership contract, making Deanna Palm, chief executive of the Hillsboro Chamber, the interim president and CEO of the Beaverton Chamber while she stayed in her Hillsboro Chamber role part-time.
A month later, a longtime Beaverton Chamber employee resigned, accusing Palm of being demeaning and constantly comparing the Beaverton Chamber to the Hillsboro Chamber, which she allegedly favored, according to an email from the staff member obtained by Pamplin Media Group.
"I take pride in what I do and when my work is diminished, it hurts," the employee wrote to members of the Beaverton Chamber's board of directors.
The employee's resignation followed a meeting with Palm, which "did not go well," the employee said.
"The comments were made to communicate that the chamber is a mess," wrote the employee, who declined an interview request. "I talked to Deanna about this and how it is very hard to hear that the chamber is in such bad shape. Deanna told me, 'change is hard.' I told her this is hard to hear and I felt that I have no value and that should pack my bag and leave. Deanna's response was that I should 'go ahead and leave,' which I did."
In an email to the employee days later, Palm apologized for the incident.
"I am truly sorry that my actions and words diminished you and your extensive body of work at the Beaverton Chamber," Palm wrote. "I should have listened more before taking action or making changes. This process is new to me and I know it has caused great disruption in operations and employee morale."
The employee has since been rehired at the Beaverton Chamber.
Palm declined to comment on the dispute.
The shared leadership contract with Palm ended abruptly in May, when the chambers announced the contract had ended, despite the Beaverton Chamber not identifying a new permanent leader.
Around the same time as the Beaverton chamber employee's resignation, former Beaverton Chamber board member Rhonda Reister also resigned. Reister would have reached the end of a three-term limit for board members in 2020, but the chamber extended her board membership for a year due to the pandemic, she said.
Reister says the two chambers originally planned to both dissolve their assets and then form a new unified countywide chamber.
She says she resigned because Palm and other members of a team tasked with transitioning the two chambers into a single entity were making decisions without consulting all Beaverton chamber board members.
The team was made up of several staff and board members from both the Beaverton and Hillsboro chambers, said Reister, who was not part of the transition team.
"Information was not forthcoming and transparent," Reister said. "(I was) asking and asking and asking for six months what was happening on the transition team meetings and literally still not having anything anything in our hands."
Stephen Smelley, who served as interim director of the Beaverton Chamber before and after Palm left, didn't respond to an email asking about a lack of transparency. In an interview, he denied that the Beaverton Chamber planned to dissolve and merge with the Hillsboro Chamber.
"Beaverton had no interest in dissolving entities and rebranding as a Washington County chamber, because that's not what we've done," Smelley said. "We have an obligation to our membership and our community that we serve in Beaverton."
Asked if the two chambers had the goal of merging, Palm said, "The conversations were with a lot of options on the table."
In a statement, Hillsboro Chamber board chair Jayne Bond told Pamplin Media Group that the Hillsboro and Beaverton chambers "were in discussions and negotiations weekly for seven months regarding consolidating the chambers and naming the new organization the 'Washington County Chamber of Commerce.'"
Minutes from Beaverton Chamber board meetings earlier this year refer discussions between the chambers as both a "consolidation" and "merger."
One of Reister's main concerns was that transition team members were set on making Palm the head of the new countywide chamber without earnestly looking for other candidates through a national search first, she said.
She voiced the concerns at an April Beaverton Chamber board meeting.
"Hillsboro would never have started these conversations unless they knew Deanna Palm would be the CEO upon approval of merger," board member Mark Spiegelberg replied to Reister, according to minutes from the meeting. "Our exec has approved the transition structure changes and as well as a memorandum of understanding that Deanna Palm will be Washington County president upon the approved merger."
A "hostile" work environment, as Reister called it, created by Palm at the Beaverton Chamber made her worried about Palm leading the new entity.
Palm didn't respond to a request for comment on the allegation that she created a hostile work environment.
"The Hillsboro Chamber left the negotiations in May with no ill will towards the Beaverton Chamber nor its leadership," Bond stated. "It was no surprise to the Beaverton Chamber that Hillsboro Chamber was moving forward with this name change."
Several factors contributed to the Beaverton and Hillsboro chambers not moving forward together on a merger, according to minutes from a May Beaverton Chamber board meeting.
The Beaverton Chamber not receiving a full-time CEO, the process being rushed, staff challenges with the transition, an attorney being hired too late and both chambers' concerns about whether they could get adequate membership approval were all noted as factors.
Smelley added that pressures caused by the pandemic on the organization also contributed.
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