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Monday, July 28, 2014

Task force to study Wichita chamber’s relationship with PAC

By Dion Lefler
The Wichita Eagle

Following a controversial stand in favor of challengers in three contested state Senate races, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is appointing a task force to review and possibly change the relationship between the chamber and its Political Action Committee.

The Chamber PAC raised ripples among the chamber membership with its outspoken and well-financed support for Rep. Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell and businessman Gary Mason, who recently moved to Park City to run for office.

The trio have mounted primary challenges seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Sens. Dick Kelsey of Goddard, Jean Schodorf of Wichita and Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick. Those three are among senators targeted by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas state Chamber of Commerce, who want to break a narrow moderate majority in the Senate and give conservatives control of both houses of the Legislature.

The new task force will “look at other chambers and what they’re doing, how they’re structured, to look at how we communicate and how we get our message out,” said Walter Berry, chairman of the chamber board and treasurer of the Chamber PAC.

The chamber and its PAC are governed by separate boards. They share staff and office space at the chamber’s headquarters in downtown Wichita.

Berry, president of Berry Companies, an interstate industrial equipment sales firm, will select the members of the chamber political task force.

He said the group will work to ensure “we’re consistent with our strategic priorities and what we’re trying to accomplish. The political side of that is just one small aspect of what the chamber’s trying to accomplish, but an important aspect.”

Some chamber members have objected to the PAC coming out strongly against the three senators, all of whom have supported major chamber priorities in the Legislature. Others have complained about the tone of the mailing the PAC sent, which keyed off of Boeing’s plan to close its plant in Wichita and painted the city’s business climate as “uncompetitive.”

The decision to form a task force was made at a meeting of the chamber board Thursday, called to discuss the relationship between the chamber and its PAC.

The meeting was not open to the public, and the chamber does not disclose members of its PAC board. Membership is based on donations to the PAC.

The only two PAC positions made public are those required by law to be reported: the treasurer, Berry, and the chairman, Sam Williams of the Sullivan Higdon and Sink advertising firm.

Chamber officials said they expect to form the task force within the next couple of weeks and that its recommendations are expected in about two months.

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