Morgan Hill mayoral candidate Mark Turner plans to resign from his position as president/CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce should he be elected in November.
It’s a position Turner has shared with voters since he began campaigning in 2021. But he’s had to double down on the message in recent weeks after a local business owner has publicly suggested Turner no longer has Gilroy’s best interests in mind while he campaigns.
Reid Lerner, owner of Gilroy-based Reid Lerner Architects, sent a letter to the chamber board on Feb. 28, which he forwarded to this newspaper, stating that “Mr. Mark Turner’s campaign to be the mayor of Morgan Hill is an obvious conflict of interest with his duties as president and CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce.”
Lerner, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Gilroy in 2020, wrote that Turner should immediately resign from his position or be furloughed by the board.
“Someone cannot represent the businesses in both cities equally,” Lerner wrote. “Speaking and acting as mayor of another city is incompatible with his job description as our city’s business leader.”
He went on to claim that Turner made Gilroy “less competitive” than Morgan Hill and other cities by “helping defund” the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation.
“Local businesses could take legal action against the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce and its president/CEO if we are damaged by missteps in this blatant conflict of interest,” Lerner wrote.
The Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization designed to help businesses set up shop in Gilroy, had received funding from the city since its incorporation in 1996, up to $200,000 annually. However, during budget discussions in May 2019, the city council decided to pull that funding and instead use it to hire an economic development manager for the city, under the direction of then-City Administrator Gabe Gonzalez.
Turner said that after the GEDC’s president departed, the chamber and GEDC boards agreed that the chamber would continue the efforts of economic development, with no funding from the city.
Turner said Lerner’s claims that he helped defund the GEDC are “completely and utterly false.”
“Since taking over the economic development efforts, we have continued the work of the GEDC by assisting with those interested in moving their businesses to Gilroy, those who have expressed interest in expanding their operations, and we have sought out businesses to move to Gilroy,” he said.
Turner pointed to his role in developing the Gilroy Economic Development Partnership alongside Visit Gilroy Executive Director Jane Howard, which brought together various business, nonprofit and community organizations to focus on three initiatives for the city: the Sharks ice rink, an adventure park for Gilroy Gardens, and the development of downtown’s Gourmet Alley.
Turner said the chamber board also recently approved a year-long advertising campaign that promotes Gilroy to the Silicon Valley.
“I personally don’t consider these actions to be poor judgments or misdirection of leadership as Reid Lerner claims,” he said. “Yes, I’m a candidate for mayor of Morgan Hill, but I am an employee of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce and until such time as I am elected mayor, I will continue to be the chief advocate for all things Gilroy.”
Lerner wrote that the “presence of a conflict of interest is independent of the occurrence of inappropriateness,” adding that the “chamber is obligated to avoid unnecessary risks to its reputation and credibility including political campaigns.”
According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, “A public official at any level of state or local government shall not make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use the public official’s official position to influence a governmental decision in which the official knows or has reason to know the official has a financial interest.”
While not commenting specifically on the local election, an FPPC spokesperson said there is a distinction between a “public official” and “public figure.” An elected public official is one who makes decisions on issues, the FPPC states, while a public figure, such as a non-incumbent candidate, is someone who is not in a position to make those decisions.
In a letter to Lerner, Carlos Pineda, chair of the chamber board, wrote that the board “wholeheartedly disagrees” with Lerner’s opinion.
He went on to state that the City of Gilroy made the decision to end funding to the GEDC, and it was “Mark and his staff who stepped in to continue the efforts of economic development for the city.”
“Mark has shown no less passion for Gilroy today than when he first stepped into his role nearly nine years ago,” Pineda wrote. “Mark has been clear with the board about what his intentions are regarding his campaign for mayor of Morgan Hill and what he plans to do should he be elected.”
Turner, a nearly 30-year resident of Morgan Hill, became CEO of the Gilroy Chamber in September 2013. In mid-2021, he filed papers to run for the Morgan Hill mayor’s seat, which will be vacated in November by Rich Constantine, who is running for District 1 Santa Clara County supervisor.
According to City of Morgan Hill elections records, no other candidates have announced their intentions to run for the seat as of March 23, with the deadline to file on Aug. 12.
“Serving the community of Gilroy has been one of the greatest privileges in my working life,” Turner said. “As I set my sights on the political arena and have declared myself to be a candidate for mayor of Morgan Hill, the town where my wife and I have raised our daughters and have lived for nearly 30 years, I find myself introspective and grateful as Gilroy has offered me such incredible opportunities.”