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Catoosa County Manager Jim Walker

A month ago, the president of the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce was quitting.

"It is with great sadness that I render my 30-day notice of resignation," Martha Eaker wrote to the Chamber's board of directors on Feb. 1.

Thirty days came and went, but Eaker remains the CEO of the Chamber, the face of Catoosa County's business community. The Chamber offers networking opportunities and explains to the leaders of out-of-town companies why Ringgold would make a great new home.

Asked about the reversal, Eaker wrote in an email to the Times Free Press: "The Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce is doing great." She said many people attended the Chamber's Feb. 26 awards banquet, and 300 high school students came to an event hosted by the Chamber on Thursday.

She did not answer a follow-up email asking specifically why she is still working.

Since Eaker penned her letter of resignation, though, five of the 17 Chamber board members have resigned, including chairwoman Stephanie Dickert and other top officers. And Eaker fired Kim Carlock, director of membership services and special events, one of her three employees.

Some local business leaders have withdrawn from the Chamber in protest. Catoosa County Manager Jim Walker instructed his staff not to attend Chamber events during work hours, saying the firing and board resignations created a small-town schism.

Sources close to the Chamber won't talk about what's happened. Carlock declined to comment. New board chairman Lee Tubbs, of Enviroguard Pest Solutions, did not return multiple calls or an email for this story. Neither did Dickert.

Board member Mike Key, of Mike Key Entertainment and Photography, said he does not know what unfolded. Member Ian O'Shea, who works for Crye-Leike Realty, said there have been "just a couple of resignations." He said he was told the departing board members left because they no longer had time to serve the Chamber.

In Eaker's letter of resignation, she wrote she was quitting because of a dispute with the board. She said some members told her she would have to get board approval for any human resources decision, including hirings, firings, pay raises and employee discipline.

She said the restriction runs afoul of the Chamber's bylaws, which give the president the authority to make these decisions.

"The unilateral attempts by the minority of a few Board members to dictate matters in violation of the By-laws and procedures are not authorized," Eaker wrote. "For these reasons, I cannot continue to serve as President of the Chamber."

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Mary Carpenter, Gary & Meredith Sisk
Board member Mary Carpenter, of First Volunteer Bank, one of those who recently resigned, declined to provide details about what happened last month, saying the board's inner workings should remain secret. But she told the Times Free Press the board discovered "several issues" in November and took action to solve those problems. She stands by her decision — whatever it actually was.

"I've given a lot of years, hours in volunteerism and money to the Chamber," she said. "A lot of my time. A lot of my sweat. I just feel really let down."

On Feb. 11, Eaker received an email from Walker telling her Catoosa County employees would no longer attend Chamber events during work hours. He said employees can attend on their free time, and he may revise his stance if the dispute dies.

"The county supports the Chamber, its mission, what they do," Walker said. "But if they're in the middle of a food fight, I thought it would be appropriate to protect the employees until the smoke cleared."

Emerson Russell, of ERMC Total Facility Services, canceled his Chamber membership. He said he used to let Eaker host lunches, dinners and mixers for free at the Renaissance Center, his event venue in Rossville, but he is uncomfortable with the recent fighting.

"I don't want to be in the middle of it," he said.

Hugh Harris, of Farm to Fork and Madaris Siding and Windows, wonders if his membership is worthwhile without Carlock. Though he has been part of the Chamber for three years, he said he didn't find the group valuable until Carlock arrived in August 2014. He said she organized breakfasts for Chamber members, allowing local business leaders to share leads and find new customers.

He told Eaker he is on the fence about extending his membership.

"I don't know who's going to be running the Chamber," he said. "I don't know what the Chamber can do for me now that this star employee is gone."

Chris Barrett, of red/boot IT services, joined last year but said he won't renew. Carpenter said about 85 people joined the Chamber in 2015 when Carlock was in charge of membership.

Barrett said Carlock told him she was fired for refusing to move her office when Eaker asked her to. Apparently, he said, board members told Carlock to remain at her desk and she believed the board was higher in the chain of command than Eaker.

Barrett called the firing "petty." He said he has tried unsuccessfully to hear Eaker's side of the story.

He also said the remaining board members have given him two responses: They weren't at liberty to discuss what happened, or simply, "I support the Chamber."

"It was almost like this secret skull and bones organization," Barrett said. "Nobody gave us an adult explanation."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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