ACRA moves to step up its political clout |

ACRA moves to step up its political clout

John Colson

Local chamber of commerce officials and business owners say they want to have more influence over civic affairs, and they have begun laying the groundwork to achieve that goal.Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said this week that a new Public Affairs Committee, consisting of a dozen business owners or so, has begun work on a couple of initiatives intended to establish the organization’s political stand on certain local issues.Those issues, Braun said, include the proposed Lodge at Aspen Mountain; the recently adopted Ordinance 30 concerning emergency historic preservation measures; and the still-unresolved question of where to build a new visitor center, after voters rejected the ACRA-backed site several years ago.Among the committee’s initiatives, Braun said, is the creation of “policy statements” that set out the organization’s positions on key issues. Efforts to reach members of the committee, to learn more about the policy statements, were not successful.Braun said that while further activism remains under discussion, at some future date the full ACRA membership might be asked whether the organization should expand its political activities.”There has been talk of forming a PAC [political action committee],” she said, perhaps in time to back a candidate in the next City Council election, which is nearly two years away.In the meantime, ACRA is looking for ways to make its positions better-known and have a greater segment of the local electorate hear its voice.The city of Aspen, which annually contributes taxpayer funds to ACRA, has in at least one funding agreement specifically stated that the chamber is not to use that money for campaigning in city elections.But, according to Braun, that city agreement “does not preclude us from being actively involved in public affairs.”The agreement, initially signed by the city and the ACRA in 2001, allocates half the proceeds of a special one-cent city sales tax (known as the “bed tax” or “lodging tax”) for ACRA to use for “marketing and promotional efforts” to attract tourists to town. In section 8-E of the agreement, it states simply that the “ACRA shall not use fund proceeds to influence the outcome of any election.”Braun said the sales tax is expected to generate anywhere between $500,000 and $600,000 this year. That would have been roughly a third of ACRA’s $1.76 million in revenues for the organization’s 2005-2006 fiscal year, as reported in its federal tax returns.The city also pays the ACRA $225,000 per year under a services contract, earmarked for operation of the visitors center and information kiosk ($162,500) and to provide seed money for several events, including Wintersköl, the Food & Wine Classic and the Fourth of July celebration ($62,500), according to a 2005 contract agreement on file with the city.The agreements governing those contractual payments for services, however, contain no language concerning ACRA’s political activities.Braun, who signed the agreements with the city on behalf of the ACRA, said the ACRA board believes that federal tax laws, which govern its tax-exempt status, allow for electoral lobbying or campaigning if the organization forms its own political action committee. She noted that she has learned that some chambers around the country have political affairs staff members devoted solely to elections and issue lobbying efforts.Regarding ACRA’s founding principles, Braun noted, “Our mission is to attract visitors to the resort,” noting that “past leadership of our board has really steered away from [political activism].”But in light of sentiments voiced at an Aug. 28 board meeting, she said, it is evident that the current ACRA leadership is eager to flex its political muscles more openly.”We have almost no clout,” complained board member David Perry of the Aspen Skiing Co. “We need to have more respect and not be marginalized.”Numerous other statements at the meeting supported Perry’s remarks, and Braun said there might be a corresponding groundswell of support from the general membership.”I think it’s going to be a point of discussion [at future meetings],” she predicted.John Colson’s e-mail address is