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Chamber set to make political endorsements

October 18, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

After years on the sidelines, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce again will take sides in elections.

In 1994, the Chamber wrote a policy allowing it to make endorsements, but it hasn't recently, President Brien Poffenberger said.

"It was the board's decision to reaffirm the policy to endorse at the September meeting," he said.

Chambers of Commerce in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties in West Virginia and Greencastle, Waynesboro and Chambersburg in Franklin County, Pa., don't endorse candidates.

As best as anyone can recall, it's been several years since the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce endorsed candidates.

Fred K. Teeter Jr., the past president, said Tuesday that the Chamber wrestled with how to make the process fair and meaningful.

This year, the Chamber plans to endorse candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, Washington County Commissioners, Washington County Board of Education and Maryland General Assembly, which includes more than one local race.

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Poffenberger said the Chamber expects to announce most choices near the end of this month. For the General Assembly races, the Chamber will wait until after its Nov. 1 breakfast forum with state representatives, he said.

He said most, but not all, feedback has been positive.

However, Mark Lannon, the executive director of The Mental Health Center of Western Maryland, a nonprofit agency in Hagerstown, raised questions in an e-mail to the Chamber.

In an interview Monday, Lannon wondered if his center's nonprofit status would be affected by Chamber endorsements and what the Chamber would do if a "fair-sized" minority doesn't agree with its choices.

United Way of Washington County's board of directors is scheduled to discuss the Chamber's decision on Thursday, Executive Director Dale Bannon said. The agency's federal and state tax-exempt status requires it to be "cautious," he said.

Tax-exempt charitable organizations under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal Internal Revenue Code "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective political office," the IRS Web site says.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce is a private, not-for-profit membership association under Section 501(c)(6) of the code. The IRS Web site says a 501(c)(6) organization may get involved in politics as long as that's not the organization's "primary activity."

A document posted at the IRS Web site states that, in general, 501(c)(3) organizations may belong to politically active 501(c)(6) organizations "provided they do not earmark any of their contributions for the political campaign activity ...."

Bruce R. Hopkins, a nonprofit-law attorney in Kansas City, Mo., and author on the topic, said 501(c)(3) groups probably would be safe because members can't be responsible for associations to which they belong. To be careful, a 501(c)(3) could post a notice at its Web site distancing itself from an endorsement, he said.

Sandra Pfau Englund, a nonprofit-law attorney in practice in Alexandria, Va., said associations might be better off avoiding endorsements because "it's difficult to speak for all your members."

Businesses, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, government bodies and individuals belong to the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, according to its 2006 directory.

The Chamber's Government Affairs Committee will recommend candidates. The Executive Committee will make the final decisions.

In any race, the Chamber might endorse a candidate, endorse no one or say that all candidates are worthy of holding office, Poffenberger said.

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