A decision at last week’s Haines Chamber of Commerce board meeting that prompted a prominent member to quit the group has resurrected questions of how the organization should determine qualifications for membership.

Karen Hess withdrew her two memberships for Chilkat River Adventures and the Duck In Car Wash after the board voted 5-0 on Friday to accept Gershon Cohen’s application for his new business, Alaska Clean Water Advocates.

President Kyle Gray, vice president Barbara Mulford, treasurer Thom Ely, secretary Scott Sundberg and board member Bill Kurz were present at the meeting. Members Harry Rietze, Patty Campbell and Kathi Lapp were absent.

Gray and other board members said they had received communication from other chamber members threatening to revoke their memberships if Cohen was admitted to the group. Gray said people expressed “distrust” and “mixed feelings” about Cohen “and some of the things he represents being in conflict with what they see as being the mission of the chamber.”

Cohen, who holds a doctorate in environmental policy, is a consultant and clean water activist who has worked on water pollution and marine mammal protection issues for more than 20 years. He founded the Earth Island Institute’s Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters, co-authored the Alaska Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative that established strict pollution rules and oversight policies for the cruise industry, and is co-director of the Great Whale Conservancy.

Cohen said his new business, Alaska Clean Water Advocates, primarily involves consulting work and selling composting toilets.

At Friday’s meeting, board member Sundberg asked why Cohen was interested in becoming a member of the chamber. “I have a vested interest in where the community goes and I would like to see it go in a positive direction,” he said. “I know I’ve been accused by many people of being anti-business. To me, that’s absolutely a ludicrous idea.”

When asked by Mulford if he was surprised by the controversy surrounding his membership application, Cohen admitted he was “taken aback.”

“At what point would you as a body say, ‘Well, your views are not quite acceptable, but they are acceptable enough. But this person’s are really not acceptable.’ Where would you draw the line to determine who could or could not (be a member) and based on what criteria? I find the whole conversation remarkable, honestly,” Cohen said.

The conversation harked back to a similar one the board had seven years ago, when Lynn Canal Conservation applied for membership. According to Hess, LCC either withdrew its membership or let it lapse when she became president of the organization, but submitted an application for reinstatement immediately after her term ended. The board denied the application.

“The board agreed at that time that LCC’s mission does not match the mission statement of the chamber. It’s more of a retard progress (mission), pretty much, by using the environmental mask, i.e. Gershon,” Hess said at Friday’s board meeting.

Discussion also turned to why Royal Caribbean Cruises pulled their ships from Haines in the late 1990s, after the company pleaded guilty to several federal felony violations for dumping dry-cleaning and photo-processing chemicals in coastal waters between Haines and Skagway.

The explanation for the company’s extrication from Haines varies depending on who you talk to: some argue Royal Caribbean left due to local protests of the illegal dumping, while others say the company left due to new logistical constraints that came as a result of the company’s expulsion from Glacier Bay.

Either way, said chamber board member Thom Ely, it’s time to move on. “I really think that for us to move forward as a community, we need to get away from the ‘us vs. them, I’m going to remember something that happened 20 years ago and I’m going to resent you for the rest of your life for it,’” Ely said.

The chamber should be an inclusive organization, not an exclusive club for certain types of individuals or businesses, Ely added.

According to the chamber’s bylaws, the board has the right to refuse membership “to assure the welfare of the common business interests of its members.”

Cohen has both a borough and state business license, board member Kurz pointed out, a fact that should allow him membership regardless of personal politics. “I don’t think we should be getting into personalities. I’ve seen personalities tear apart so much of this town for so many years. I’m done with it,” Kurz said.

Board member Mulford struggled with the question of how to determine who qualifies as a member, but said she believed the onus of determining membership was more on the individual business than the chamber board: If the board takes positions an individual or business doesn’t like, that business or organization can reconsider its membership, instead of the board preemptively denying membership and deciding that individual or business isn’t in line with the chamber’s positions.

“I find it really challenging to be what I feel like is right in the middle of the divisiveness,” Mulford said.