Collaboration between government officials and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce compromises public health in more ways than one.
The federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been a spectacular clusterfuck. The Trump administration didn’t drop the ball so much as violently lob it at the states, while simultaneously attacking any Governor who took meaningful steps to protect their states’ residents. Here in Wisconsin, Republicans and their lackeys on the Wisconsin Supreme Court quickly undermined Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, kicking the can even further down the road to be picked up by County executives and health departments. In Madison, we’ve been relying on the expert guidance of Public Health Madison & Dane County since the middle of May.
After being failed at so many levels, by so many elected officials—after seeing the government that we all pay into year after year refuse to take any responsibility for our collective safety and care—it would be nice to trust that the county health department, at least, is guided solely by a commitment to keeping people healthy and safe. But the opaque and inappropriate relationship between Public Health Madison & Dane County and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce makes that hard to believe.
From the beginning, it seems that the Greater Madison Chamber—a non-governmental lobbying organization representing the business community—has had a hand in shaping reopening plans in our county and continues to exercise influence over local public health policy. In fact, they were apparently privy to details of Forward Dane, PHM&DC’s plan for re-opening, before any information was shared with members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors or Madison Common Council, individuals who—unlike anyone over at the Chamber of Commerce—were actually elected to lead our city and county.
The President of the Chamber of Commerce, Zach Brandon, talked about this collaboration during Downtown Madison, Inc.’s What’s Up Madison breakfast meeting on May 28. Notably, Downtown Madison, Inc. is a project of the Chamber of Commerce.
“I don't know that the public and the business community will really know the work that was done by these organizations,” Brandon said of Forward Dane. “Late-night calls, weekend Zooms, lots of emails. But none of that would've been possible without the trust of public health and the mayor and the county exec to share early documents, to share early thinking.”
If it’s true, this is a pretty distressing admission, because when it comes to plans being cooked up by our government, the public actually has a right to know. Our government is meant to be open and transparent. These are key principles of democracy. Closed-door collaboration between leaders of a county agency, elected officials, and a lobbying group that represents many of the richest individuals in the Madison area is not open, transparent, or democratic, and that’s a problem.
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is not the only group working to shape and (frankly) undermine public health policies that should be directed at keeping people safe. Groups like the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Wisconsin Tavern League, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and many others were agitating for the state to begin reopening as early as April 24 before Governor Evers “Safer at Home” order was struck down on Mary 13. More recently, some of the same organizations and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce organized to oppose any move by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to publicly name businesses that have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks. It’s ridiculous that this is even debatable, given that this information could be useful for consumers and workers and that it might deter people from taking unnecessary risks.