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State History Museum offers discounts to chamber members for opposing closure

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Aug. 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
August 23, 2011 1:23 pm

The state agency that runs the Washington State History Museum is offering discounted memberships to members of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce as a thank-you for supporting a push this winter to keep the Legislature from closing the museum.

The State Historical Society says just six people have taken advantage of the half-off rates in the first month of an offer that runs through Oct. 31. The letter went out in July:

The Washington State Historical Society thanks YOU, our friends with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, for rallying so much positive support on our behalf this year!  As a result of your efforts, the Washington State History Museum will keep its doors open and continue to serve our city, state, and region with world-class programs and exhibits! As a token of our appreciation, please accept this special, limited-time offer…. Enjoy 50 percent off our regular membership rates — for Chamber members only!

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed closing the state’s three history museums to help bridge the budget shortfall, but the Legislature found cuts elsewhere. State lawmakers never really threatened to agree to the closure, but it couldn’t have hurt that the city of Tacoma, the chamber and other groups lobbied to keep it open.

So is it OK for a state agency to reward supporters for “rallying,” or even lobbying, on its behalf? In this case, it’s probably legal barring some other evidence, according to agencies that enforce such things.

Discounts for a group are fine as long as other groups get discounts too, according to the State Executive Ethics Board director Melanie De Leon. And the society gives away memberships to nonprofits all the time for events like charity tournaments or auctions, said David Nicandri, who’s about to hand over the reins as society director. Until a few years ago, Nicandri said, it had a regular discount program for chamber businesses as well.

The state bars public agencies from doing indirect lobbying, such as asking “stakeholders” or “grass-roots” supporters to lobby. But a reward after the fact might be allowed where a deal ahead of time would not.

“Was it known there would be this benefit if they got involved?” asked Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission. “That would be bad.”

Nope, says Nicandri, it was never promised in advance. He came up with it later. “There was no quid pro quo, no grassroots lobbying,” the director said:

It wasn’t something they asked for. It was just a a gesture on my part, institution to institution, to reciprocate. Gosh, if that’s a breach of some ethic, so be it, but it just seemed to me to be appropriate under the circumstances.

What’s more, Nicandri said, the chamber did the lobbying, not the businesses getting the benefit:

Their connection to the legislative advocacy is so remote as to literally be nonexistent.

State Historical Society letter

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