Whala out as chamber director; no reason given

dwitte@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 31, 2013 

The Los Banos Chamber of Commerce and its executive director John Whala have severed ties, with neither one disclosing the reason.

"The employment relationship with the executive director has been separated," chamber president Geneva Brett said in a statement. "He has had positive changes in his life and is going in a new direction. We wish him every success in his new endeavors. We are appreciative of his years of dedicated service."

Brett declined to reveal whether Whala stepped down or was removed, saying, "You have our statement."

She did stress that Whala is still a member of the chamber, just no longer an employee.

Whala said a confidentiality agreement prevented him from talking about the separation. Whala has been head of the chamber since 2009 and has had a role in promoting the Tomato Festival, the two Downtown Street Faires, the Old-fashioned Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza and the Christmas parade.

"He's been a member for many years," she said. "We are very thankful for his years of service."

While a time line for finding a permanent replacement has yet to be decided, second vice president Jerry Knoester has volunteered as interim executive director.

"We're not going to change the direction," Knoester said. "Like Geneva said, the mission statement, that's still the same. That's not going to change. The direction's still the same.

"Eventually, we are going to look for somebody permanent. Will I be it? I'm happily retired."

Knoester spent 10 years in the Air Force, followed by 12 years in the Air Force Reserve, during which he also worked in the Air Force Civilian Service. He eventually found himself as a labor relations negotiator for that military branch. He retired in 2006, and soon went into business as a mobile notary.

"They needed a notary public at the Air Force base, and somebody volunteered," Knoester said. "When he was doing the notary stuff, I said to myself, 'When I retire, I can do that.' "

He said his experience in the Air Force has given him the perfect skill set for the executive director position.

"For me, it's an easy move into this. If there's a labor issue with one of our chamber members, they can come to me and talk about it," he said. "I worked at the federal level, and this is more of a state level, and federal trumps state, so I would have to look at the labor law at the state level to find out how it applies. But I'm familiar with the code."

Both Knoester and Brett said Whala's departure won't change anything for the business community.

"I'd just like to be a caretaker," Knoester said. "I look at myself as a placeholder."

Said Brett: "We're looking at redefining the role of what the executive director does, and Jerry's filling that role. According to our bylaws, what the executive director does is kind of a chief administrator of the chamber office. He implements the policies of the board of directors and he prepares a budget."

Knoester said he is anxious to get started.

"I expect there will be challenges later on. We'll have the wine stroll, but that's mostly Penny Glick," he said. "But we have the Street Faire, I imagine there will be challenges with that. It's a learning process as you go."

Enterprise reporter David Witte can be reached by phone at 388-6565 or by e-mail at dwitte@losbanosenterprise.com.

Enterprise staff writer Corey Pride contributed to this report.

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