A sharply divided Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday supported finding ways to fund a job creation effort by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

A majority of council members praised the Building Economic Success Together program and vowed to find the $60,000 per year the chamber requested the city contribute toward it for five years.

"We all have a vested interest in what happens with our economy," Mayor Ernesto Olivares said. "We're not going to get anything done if we don't do it together. That's a fact."

But other council members took the chamber to task for its political activism, especially its activities in the 2010 City Council election and its plans — since abandoned — for the new program to keep a "scorecard" on politicians who support key business priorities.

"Until you get out of politics, you're not getting my support, because it looks bad," Gary Wysocky told chamber President Jonathan Coe.

Susan Gorin, whose rivals were supported by the chamber's political action committee last year, said she couldn't trust the BEST program would be completely apolitical, given its ties to the chamber.

"There are really good reasons why nonprofit organizations absolutely refrain from partisan activities, because it taints everything else that you do," Gorin said.

The council debate closely mirrored the comments of members of the public who addressed the council.

Supporters of the program noted it has worked elsewhere and the county is in urgent need of job growth.

Brett Martinez, president of Redwood Credit Union and a member of the BEST board of directors said his organization sees the financial stress people are under every day.

"The issue today is people are struggling and we need to do something about it, and we need to do it together," Martinez said.

The group estimated that with $3.25 million, it could create 4,000 new jobs by helping local businesses expand and attracting new businesses to the area. They argued that the effort would complement Santa Rosa's economic development work.

But several critics of the program questioned the political and economic ties between the city and chamber.

Judy Kennedy, a neighborhood activist, noted the chamber and the council have been "cozy for a long time" with many benefits for the chamber. The two groups have a "symbiotic" relationship that could also be characterized as "cronyism," she said. She noted that Coe sit on at least three city boards.

"I find this somewhat outrageous, really," Kennedy said.

But Olivares said he didn't see anything wrong with the city being "cozy" with the chamber.

"That's not always a bad thing," he said. "We have to have a partnership, a relationship, to get things done. We have some common interests in making sure that we have a great place for everybody to live."

The council agreed on a 4-3 vote to return next week with changes to the language of the resolution that made it clearer that it supported the nonpartisan efforts of BEST, and that the city would try to find the money this fiscal year, if possible.

City staff had recommended supporting the measure and finding the money in next year's budget.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.