The Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce wants the the public to look at the area’s white sand beaches, not the organization’s finances. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

By Steve Miller
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

We love spending time in the so-called “Redneck Riviera,” with its white sand beaches, fresh seafood and reasonable hotel rates.

Where best to learn about such things than the local chambers of commerce? But it seems one of those cheery, all-news-is-good-news operations, the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, has a bit of a problem handling its affairs and is in no mood to allow the public to hear about it, according to a well-penned op-ed in the Pensacola News-Journal.

The chamber, with revenue in 2010 of more than $7 million, claimed that a meeting regarding the golden parachute of its outgoing CEO was not open to the public, using the personnel provision of the state’s open meetings act.

The column states:

They claimed an exemption to open meetings law that does not exist in Florida law to talk about the separation package for outgoing CEO Jim Hizer in private.

For good measure, they also claimed an exemption as a private nonprofit entity to conduct personnel business in private, which would be a much more compelling argument if the chamber did not receive so much public money, including $232,000 from the City of Pensacola and $550,000 from Escambia County.

They are clinging to that claim like a toddler clings to a wubby blanket as a shield against the monsters under the bed. Whether it is more effective against the calls for transparency and public accountability than that blanket would be if the big bad wolf were real remains to be seen.

Public-private partnerships are touted as the way to do “the people’s business” with the business world’s “get-er-done” mentality.

But when you accept those tax dollars, you need to accept an expectation of public disclosure that some in the business world are not accustomed to.

Nicely put. These chambers are all about the camera and the pen when it comes to a new hotel or some feel-good local yokel donating money to something. But when it comes down to how public money is spent — and we assume this $782,000 a year in taxpayer funds is correct — chambers often resort to obfuscation or outright refusal to divulge.

The Pensacola chamber has been hit this year with a couple of tough allegations. In March, Escambia County demanded a full examination of the group’s finances after an audit found possible “irregularities” in the administering of a BP gift card program. We found it interesting that among the top expenditures for the chamber in 2010, according to its tax form, was $288,470 to American Express for gift cards. In 2009, it was $231,000.

Then there is the $3.6 million defamation lawsuit filed against the chamber and Hizer by its former CFO, Brian McBroom, in the wake of the gift card flap.

You can’t read the entire gem written by the Gannett-owned Pensacola newspaper because of a pay wall, but here is a snippet:

The lawsuit focuses on comments Hizer made during and after a March 8 emergency chamber board meeting during which he blamed McBroom for an outside auditor’s finding that thousands of dollars in American Express gift cards …

The good money has it that Hizer is being defended with chamber funds.

Hizer received a pay package worth $125,745 in 2010, the last year tax forms are available for the chamber. His parting gift can’t be astronomical, can it?

One last thing: We reviewed the conflicts section of the chamber’s tax form in 2008 and found several business transactions between board members and the chamber. They are divulged, as required by law. But check out how these internal relationships have blossomed, as of 2010.

From bank accounts to IT services to events at a hotel and a restaurant, the chamber uses the facilities and services of its board members — services that it could easily obtain from other sources without the challenging appearance.

At least Pensacola knows where to really pick a fight: When someone steals its motto.