2021 IN REVIEW: Washington County chambers clash
A bizarre business drama played out over the course of several months in 2021, as local chambers of commerce got together, broke apart, rebranded and recriminated.
In February, the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce made a surprise announcement: Following the departure of longtime Beaverton Area Chamber chief executive Lorraine Clarno in late 2020, instead of hiring its own replacement for Clarno, the chamber would instead share leadership with the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, beginning in March.
From the outset, there were danger signs.
The chambers couldn't come to an agreement on a formal merger, instead remaining two separate organizations. While Deanna Palm, the Hillsboro Chamber's longtime president and CEO, would oversee both chambers, she would report to separate boards, with the Beaverton Area Chamber retaining its own board and governing structure independent from the Hillsboro Chamber. The chambers also left it ambiguous as to whether Palm's tenure in Beaverton was intended to be a long-term arrangement or a short-term patch until the Beaverton Area Chamber could line up a permanent successor to Clarno.
As it turned out, Palm's time in Beaverton was quite short. Just over two months into the arrangement, the two chambers' board chairs abruptly announced that the chambers had "completed the term of the contract," and just like that, Palm was no longer president and CEO of the Beaverton Area Chamber.
Pamplin Media Group decided to dig a little deeper.
In July, Pamplin Media Group reported that Palm's exit came after escalating tension between the chief executive and Beaverton Area Chamber officials.
One longtime employee resigned, sending an email to Palm — and members of the Beaverton chamber board — accusing her of demeaning behavior toward Beaverton Area Chamber employees and saying bluntly that "the chamber is a mess" under Palm.
One of those board members also resigned in frustration over what she said was Palm's refusal to consult or share information with the board. Rhonda Reister alleged that members, employees and board members in Beaverton were kept in the dark and shut out of discussions about Palm and her allies' plans to formally merge the chambers of commerce in Beaverton and Hillsboro, creating a unified entity from the two largest business organizations in Washington County.
While Palm apologized to the employee who had quit — and has since been rehired — in a statement also obtained by Pamplin Media Group, within weeks, she was out, and any designs on merging the Beaverton Area Chamber with the Hillsboro Chamber were kaput.
Despite the messy breakup with its largest neighboring chamber, the Hillsboro Chamber forged ahead with its own rebranding plans. In late June, it unilaterally announced that subject to a vote of its members — which it later said had passed, making it official — the Hillsboro Chamber would rename itself the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
Other chambers in Washington County were nonplussed.
"Your board and I do not believe this is done in good faith, nor is it in the best interest of the Forest Grove/Cornelius Chamber of Commerce," wrote executive director Juanita Lint in a message to Forest Grove/Cornelius Chamber members.
The Beaverton Area Chamber, Palm's erstwhile employer, was even more loudly opposed. Board chair Keith Wright and interim CEO Stephen Smelley said outright in a message to members they had "grave concern about any assumption or action that one chamber shall represent all businesses in Washington County."
"This is simply not the case," Wright and Smelley added, "nor should it be."
Over the following months, the chambers appear to have settled into détente. The Beaverton Area Chamber announced last week that the nine chambers within the Washington County Chamber of Commerce Partnership plan to host a "business discussion" with state legislators on Thursday evening, Jan. 6.
"This event is brought to you by the Washington County Chambers of Commerce," the announcement added, before listing all nine in alphabetical order, with the so-named Washington County Chamber of Commerce itself second from the bottom.
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