Still without a president to replace Robert Love, who quit earlier this month after questioning the executive director's finances, the Bernards Township Regional Chamber of Commerce is again scheduling events.
About 40 business representatives attended a Mardi Gras Networking Event held Tuesday night at Vine restaurant.
"We have moved on," said Al LiCata, the chamber's executive director who helped found the organization about 14 years ago. "You can expect the chamber to be more active than it's been in years," he said on Tuesday night at the chamber's annual Mardi Gras-Fat Tuesday networking event.
"We had a great turnout tonight," LiCata added, while business owners chatted and exchanged information at the restaurant.
Meanwhile, LiCata said about 30 to 40 chamber members had so far been counted as paying dues for this year. However, he said other members may have sent in dues since, and added that interest in joining the chamber had been expressed by others at Tuesday's mixer at Vine.
Tuesday's was the chamber's first organized event since Love sent out emails to about 300 businesses on the chamber's mailing list at the beginning of this month. In the email, Love questioned payments he said are being made to LiCata, which he said each year add up to about $20,000 per year in a combination of salary, expense payments, bonuses and other fees.
Love also said earlier this month he had been unable to obtain copies of the chamber's bylaws, despite repeated requests, during the two years he had served as president. Until some time around the beginning of this year, he said he had been unaware of the full amount he said has been paid to LiCata.
On Tuesday afternoon, Love, too, said he had received "a lot of positive feedback" for his efforts to make public his concerns. As of now, he said he and others still are looking into the feasability of starting another business support group to serve Bernards Township. "I don't want to replace the BTRCC with another organization that's not done right," he said.
He said he had since received about 20 communications complaining about LiCata's dealings over the years. Some business representatives said they want to revitalize the existing chamber with new leadership, while others said they would prefer a new business group, Love said.
Love added on Tuesday that the Bernards chamber has not been filing tax returns. He said the Internal Revenue Service would question some of the expenses in the chamber's finances.
LiCata has said that Love's figures, obtained from the chamber's former treasurer, Beth Korkuch, who was not reappointed to her position for 2012, overstate the amount he receives. He said he receives $416 a month to cover expenses, and far lesser payments to cover other costs than Love had stated.
On Tuesday, asked whether the chamber had filed recent tax returns, LiCata said that as president, Love would have been responsible for the chamber's finances. "I just handle the day to day operations."
Along with some annual events, the chamber is scheduling programs such as "Tech Talk," from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 14, to address business communication through multiple media, including print and online media, according to an announcement from LiCata.
Some of the attendees at Tuesday's networking event expressed support for the Bernards chamber, and LiCata.
"We are going to make some really good good changes," Robert Mascia, just elected treasurer at a chamber meeting attended by about a half-dozen members earlier month. "We have a good group of people [and] we have a lot of good things in the works," added Mascia, a Basking Ridge resident who is a financial planner with Emerald Financial in Bridgewater.
Scott DeVillers of Bernardsville, owner of Pulse Stage Lighting, said Tuesday he remains committed to the Bernards chamber.
DeVlllers said he read the emails from Love, and he said he believes that the former chamber president could have better handled the way he raised any issues.
But DeVillers added that he has known LiCata for 16 or 17 years. "He's always one of those guys who help people." He added, "I believe in him — I believe in the chamber."
DeVillers added that he believes attendance at the networking event showed that the chamber will weather the split. If another local business organization starts, "I wish them luck," he added.
Lisa Silvershein, owner of Ark Career Coaching in Basking Ridge, said she has paid her dues, continuing her membership after at least eight years.
She said she believes the chamber will continue as long the organization "starts doing things" to support businesses. Overall, she added, "I am staying out of the fray."
Meanwhile, LiCata said there have been several people who have stepped forward and a new chamber president will be chosen soon. In the meantime, along with Mascia, another chamber vice-president, Barbara Long, owner of Wabba Travel, has temporarily stepped into the position of president..
Earlier this month, the handful of members present at the chamber's annual reorganization meeting voted to move last year's chamber vice president of community events, Susan Schumann, into the position of president. Schumann was not present at the meeting.
Schumann said in an email in mid-February that she was declining the position because of family responsibilities. "This in no way should reflect on the circumstances that is going on in the media right now between Al and Rob," she wrote.
Love said that LiCata "hand picks" the chamber's board. Under the organization's bylaws, the board can hire or fire an executive director, he said.
Chamber members within Bernards Township pay annual dues of $125, while those in neighboring communities, such as Long Hill Township and Bernardsville, have been recently asked to pay dues of $150 for this year, LiCata said at a chamber meeting a few weeks ago.