Chamber says it wasn’t told conservative items would be for sale at event, but charity says it is apolitical
This story contains significant updates and a clarification.
A vendor selling conservative-leaning merchandise at the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Dec. 3 holiday event has led to criticism of and a public apology from the chamber, whose leader said she wasn’t told such items would be offered for sale.
The vendor, however, said in an email that she sells donated items from along the political spectrum to benefit her animal-rights organization and that the chamber, a councilman and an initial report in the Daily Pilot mischaracterized her. She said her group, San Fernando Valley-based Recycled Pets, is nonpartisan and assists in animal-rescue efforts.
The politicized material included items with phrases such as “MAGA,” “COVIDIOT” and “Let’s Go Brandon,” a derogatory chant directed at President Biden. There was also material featuring former President Trump.
Sandy Morales, the president and CEO of the chamber, said the vendor, Randi Berger, did not tell organizers that such material would be for sale at the event — an assertion Berger disputed in an email to the Los Angeles Times, which owns the Daily Pilot.
“Contrary to what Sandy Morales of the Chamber of Commerce stated, she personally came to our booth, introduced herself and provided her card to us,” Berger wrote. “Included with the items we had available, many that were donated to our charity, were FREE Homeopet Remedies, pet bandannas, LGBT flags, Love beanies, etc. ...”
Berger also disputed the assertion that the items for sale were actually political, as, she wrote, her charity is nonpartisan, and disputed an earlier Pilot report calling it “propaganda.”
“My charity was not distributing political propaganda, does not have any political affiliation nor does it donate to any political party,” she wrote. “We offer some items donated to us to support our work and we do not disassociate with anyone or attack anyone for their beliefs.”
Morales said the chamber was contacted by Berger about availability for a station at the annual holiday kickoff, Hospitality Night, on the day of the event. Another vendor had dropped out earlier that day.
Morales said that Berger spoke of her connections to the Laguna Beach community and namedropped a chamber ambassador to further her case for securing a spot in front of the Candy Baron on Forest Avenue.
Berger, in the email to The Times, said she did not namedrop a chamber ambassador, nor does she know any by name.
Morales said all she was told in advance is that the booth would feature items benefitting rescued pets.
“When my event manager arrived around 5 o’clock, she went and checked on everybody, and there was no material at all out there other than for pets,” Morales said. “There was someone at their table with a little puppy, and everything just seemed completely fine.
“Then it was somewhere during the night. In fact, I was not notified that night, but they obviously put out material that people saw” and objected to.
After hearing of the goings-on, Morales released a statement saying that the vendor was banned from future events. Morales’s message also stated that chamber events are not to be politicized.
“It was obviously a painful learning experience because, you know, can’t be trusting anymore,” Morales said. “We can’t take someone’s word, and basically, what we’re most likely going to do in the future is not have any vendors at all at this event. Just keep it with the city, the tree lighting, Santa and music, and let the stores be open and people go to the stores, and just take off that whole scenario of vendors.”
Laguna Beach City Councilman George Weiss questioned how and why the vendor was accommodated at the last minute.
“An animal rights organization could be fine to put there because that’s the spirit of Christmas, taking care of creatures great and small,” Weiss said. “That would be appropriate, but to have a political thing would be subterfuge, I guess you’d call it, a political organization in posing as an animal rights organization... ”
Berger vehemently denied the assertion that she misled anyone about her organization and that her sales do not benefit animals.
“He ... falsely stated that I have a political organization posing as an animal rights organization,” she wrote. “Laguna Beach is known for being one of the most dog friendly places that exists. If anything needs to be learned from this, it is that a few residents would benefit from demonstrating tolerance and unity for the greater good of all.”
4:37 p.m. Dec. 13, 2021: This story has been updated with responses from the vendor, Randi Berger, and provides her position that she runs an animal-rights nonprofit. She says her group is apolitical and sells items donated to the organization that include liberal causes as well as the conservative ones indicated in the story. One of the quotations critical of Berger has been removed.
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