The Milpitas Chamber of Commerce has been in existence since 1957, helping to support and nurture the city’s small business community.
However, despite its longevity, the organization has recently faced a struggle…
Since the pandemic, membership numbers have dwindled. Even before Covid was a factor, the number of Chamber members was down. In 2020, they had just over 300 businesses as members; by the end of 2021, that number had fallen to 220. This was due, in part, to the pandemic giving some small businesses no choice but to shut their doors. However, the last time the Chamber has seen a robust membership base was 20 years ago, when their member total was at around 600.
Meanwhile, internally, the Chamber’s Board of Directors haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye on numerous issues. And some Board Members have been questioning the current executive leadership.
About a week ago, sources inside the organization told The Beat that the Chamber’s Board President issued letters stating his intention to terminate three Board Members, who he says are not in compliance with certain bylaws, as well as the oath they all took. There are also accusations from Board Members that the executive leadership themselves have been in violation of several bylaws.
All of this comes during a time when the organization should be on an upswing…
Last year, the Milpitas City Council gave their stamp of approval to allocating $200,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to the Milpitas Chamber of Commerce. Part of the City’s Economic Vitality plan to support small business owners, the funding was to be put toward specific events and programs planned and executed by the Chamber: a Crab Feed, an Art and Wine Festival, a job fair, and various business workshops.
If the Chamber shows they can start delivering on these projects, they will be able to get access to the first $100,000 in funding. After that, if the Chamber is able to show continued success, the remaining $100,000 will be allocated.
Alex Andrade, Milpitas’ Director of Economic Development, has been in communication with the Chamber, monitoring how things have been progressing. And as the year changed from 2021 to 2022, City staff started to notice that the Chamber hadn’t made much progress toward their goals.
“What we noticed in conversations with the Chamber was that they weren’t moving on these things,” said Andrade. “We wanted to know about where the money was going to go, and there were performance metrics we were looking at. They said they were experiencing challenges in implementation of the programs.”
So City staff figured they would add staffing resources to the ARPA funding, to support the Chamber in successfully implementing the agreed-upon programs.
Until earlier this year, it was Office Manager CJ Ericson who served as the Chamber’s sole full-time employee. But Ericson suddenly left in early March of 2022, telling The Beat that after 13 years of working there, she was ready to move on. She stated that she’s now “much happier” in her new job as Office Manager at Huntford Printing & Graphics.
This year, to replace Ericson, the Chamber hired two new full-time employees – who started working the first week of March – to help with marketing, planning events, managing the office, and building up membership.
“They both seem incredibly talented, and it’s a step in the right direction for the Chamber,” said Andrade.
In April of this year, as part of their commitment to procuring the funding, the Chamber hosted its annual Crab Feed at the Milpitas Community Center. Due to Covid, the event hadn’t been held since 2019.
In an effort to get the community to come out, the Chamber’s Board President Warren Wettenstein and Vice President Inderjit Mundra handed out a bunch of free tickets.
In previous years, according to sources on the Chamber Board, the Crab Feed has brought in anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000, and has been a major source of fundraising for the organization. But a couple of Board Members who spoke to The Beat said that the Chamber’s executive leadership haven’t shown them a financial report – and thus have no idea what the Crab Feed took in this year.
When The Beat reached out to Mundra for the report, he said that it was “internal” information. Without specifying numbers, he said that there were “no losses” incurred by the Chamber from the event.
Board President Wettenstein, who also didn’t state any numbers, told The Beat that he doesn’t believe the low amount of money made this year is a measure of the event’s overall success…
“We weren’t trying to do fundraising. We were doing a community-inspired event,” said Wettenstein. “The conga line at the end was reflective of that.”
One Chamber Board Director, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Beat that not only has the Chamber’s executive leadership failed to share a financial report from the event, they haven’t released any kind of financial report during the last several months – something that used to be routine at every Board meeting.
The Beat asked the Chamber’s executive leadership for a recent financial report, but they did not share it. Instead, Mundra said that the Board Members who are making complaints were not showing up to Finance Sub-Committee meetings, which is why they know nothing about the financials.
Along with the Crab Feed, the Chamber also held a Job Fair and some business workshops this spring — though they have yet to host their Art and Wine Festival.
Back in June, the Board’s executive leadership stated their intentions to host the Art and Wine Festival in October of this year, at the Great Mall, despite staff from the City of Milpitas feeling that it wasn’t a good idea. In an email thread obtained by The Beat, City staff recommended that the Chamber host the Art and Wine Festival in the Spring of 2023, as they felt the event wouldn’t be as successful as it could be with only several months of planning.
However, the Chamber’s executive leadership went ahead and planned the event for October anyway. Their thought was that putting on the event would help to secure the first half of the ARPA funding.
However, a couple of Board Members told The Beat that they weren’t happy to see the Chamber’s President and Vice President forcing the festival, against the City’s advice. So a group of concerned Board Members from the Chamber’s Marketing Team scheduled a meeting with Andrade (Dir. of Economic Development) to discuss the issue on June 17.
The Chamber’s executive leadership found out about the meeting, and on June 23, they told four Board Members that they would no longer be serving on the Marketing Team, and also sent letters with the intent to terminate three of them from the Board itself.
“Our motivation for calling that meeting was to get clear on the City’s position,” said the anonymous Board Member. “We were just concerned that these guys [the President and Vice President] were just pushing their own agenda instead of putting the best interests of the Chamber first. We don’t want to put our Chamber in jeopardy.”
The Chamber’s Board President told The Beat that the Board Members should not have met with the City without first receiving authorization from executive leadership to do so.
Tonight, the Chamber will have its regularly scheduled Board meeting, where they’ll be discussing the current conflict over potentially terminating the three Board Members.
The Beat learned of this potential last week, when one of Wettenstein’s letters was leaked. The letter expressed to the Board Members that “…in recent months, some unfortunate actions have been taken by you and others that do not benefit the Chamber and show that you have neither upheld the oath you took or the Milpitas Chamber by-laws,” but did not mention any specifics.
The letter went on to inform the Board Members that the Board would be holding a vote to potentially terminate them, if they didn’t “discreetly, voluntarily” resign. It also told them that they were no longer allowed to attend any future board meetings, and stated that the Board Members weren’t allowed to speak to any media regarding the situation, and that if they did, they would be subject to litigation.
The anonymous Board Director whom Wettenstein sent a letter to told The Beat, “As President, he had no authorization to write that letter.”
The Board Member also stated that neither the Board president nor the Vice President ever spoke to them before writing the letter, and mentioned that it wasn’t proper procedure to send the letter without first documenting and discussing the situation.
The Board Member then stated that Wettenstein and Mundra themselves were in violation of various bylaws, accusing them of not holding annual elections or having annual meetings for the past few years (an assertion that places Wettenstein and Mundra’s respective positions into question). The Board Member also accused them of going for months without keeping minutes of all the board meetings.
When The Beat asked Wettenstein about the above, he stated forcefully that the Board Directors who received the termination letters spoke to individuals working for the City of Milpitas at different times, representing themselves as “speaking for the Chamber.” He stated, as mentioned earlier, that this was not allowed without approval from executive leadership.
Wettenstein also stated that no one ever mentioned anything about wanting to hold elections or do the annual meeting, and as a result they didn’t do them for the last few years. He said that he would be happy to have an election and annual meeting, if others would step up and help with the planning. As for the claims of not keeping board minutes, he called those “a lie.”
When The Beat asked for documentation of previous board minutes, the Chamber’s executive leadership did show the full minutes from a recent (June) board meeting.
When The Beat questioned Mundra about whether or not the Chamber’s executive leadership did violate bylaws, he said it all was untrue and that the Board Members in question “disobeyed every single oath that they’ve taken.” He also claimed that the Board Members who they wished to terminate never actually put in any work, and just merely critiqued the work of others while sitting on the sidelines…
“There is a rogue group [of Board Members] who don’t understand how to help people and how to grow Milpitas. They don’t even show up to board meetings,” said Mundra. “And now they’re just trying to make us look bad.”
Mundra also accused two of the Board Members (who received letters for potential termination) of bullying the Chamber staff members on at least two occasions, reducing one to tears and creating a hostile work environment for them.
Meanwhile, Mundra has been working to bring in new sponsorships to boost the Chamber’s finances.
Despite the Chamber’s internal challenges, both Mundra and Wettenstein feel that they, along with other Board Members, have been working well together to move things in the right direction. They’ve recently brought on two new Board Members whom they feel will be a great addition to the team. Amazon and Flex also became new members, and the Chamber just received a $50,000 line of credit from Poppy Bank. They’re also hopeful that the City of Milpitas will soon release the first $100,000 in funding to them.
Said Wettenstein, “We’ve jump-started the Chamber. We’re making it more worthwhile to join the Chamber. Now we have a good working team. And we’re making it beneficial to help businesses stay alive.”
However, the anonymous Board Member doesn’t share the same sentiments. They feel that the Chamber’s President and Vice President are failing to demonstrate real leadership – and a couple other Board Members (both of whom were dropped from the Chamber’s marketing team) interviewed by The Beat agreed. However, neither of them wanted to be quoted for this article, as they feared litigation from the executive leadership.
“Now the question is: are they going to have the annual election as stated in the bylaws?” asked the Board Member who spoke anonymously. “Or are they going to keep avoiding it, so that they can keep their positions as President and Vice President?”
Meanwhile, due to the rigorous tracking and reporting requirements, it’s now uncertain when the Chamber will receive access to the first $100,000 of ARPA funding.
The Beat asked Mayor Rich Tran what he thought about what was happening in the organization. Tran said that the City of Milpitas needed to take “a more focused look on the Milpitas Chamber Board’s leadership activity from here on out.”
The Mayor also stated, “I think for any nonprofit the City disperses money to, there is a basic expectation of ethics and financial responsibility. And if any nonprofit has questions and concerns about their ethics and their financial responsibility, it is the fiduciary duty of myself and others in the City to put the brakes on everything.”
The latest step toward funding for the Chamber was to submit an application through the City’s online portal, to report on what they have accomplished thus far. If the application is approved, the first half of the ARPA funds will be released to them.
Last week, the City confirmed that the Chamber had submitted the required application, but that the info on it was still incomplete.
In the meantime, leading up to tonight’s meeting, Wettenstein hopes to “cure any misunderstandings” so that the Board can move forward and find ways to work together for the benefit of the community and small businesses in Milpitas.