Nine months ago today, then-Mesa Chamber of Commerce President Peter Sterling woke up from an emergency surgery ordered after an aggressive tumor was found in his brain.
Before the operation, the former aerospace advocate and marketing consultant had been flying high, urging the chamber to speak up on public-policy issues and fostering business growth and retention. After the procedure, he and his wife weren’t sure if he had more than a year to live.
Though the 47-year-old father of two still cracks jokes, roots for Mesa’s success and, on good days, meets with some of the countless community members who support him, he has lost more than the promise of a long life.
Last week, the Mesa chamber sent him a dismissal letter, stating that he will be officially unemployed — and potentially uninsured — as of Jan. 1.
Chamber officials declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Sterling’s firing, saying they’d prefer not to comment on personnel issues. About two months after Sterling’s diagnosis, they said that they didn’t intend to hire an interim leader and that they were hopeful Sterling would be able to return to his post.
It’s unclear how quickly chamber officials thought Sterling might be able to come back. Brain-tumor survivors can experience cognitive consequences affecting everything from job performance to personality. The situation was so unusual that the chamber didn’t have a specific protocol for handling it, past board Chairman Tom Rhodes said.
In early July, current Chairman Otto Shill said the chamber’s executive council and other staffers had “all taken on additional work in terms of the day-to-day nuts and bolts” to make up for Sterling’s absence.
After it became clear that Sterling could not fulfill his duties as president and CEO, he and the chamber in early August worked out an arrangement in which Sterling would trade his presidency for a position as a membership-sales representative, allowing him to remain involved with the chamber and keep his benefits in exchange for working to bring in new members.
Communication from acting chamber President Sally Harrison to Sterling, dated Nov. 20, indicated that the chamber believed the agreement would not work out and that the organization was considering terminating Sterling in light of concerns related to disability- and health-insurance carriers.
“You are obligated to work at least 32 hours per week to maintain eligibility for health insurance coverage,” the letter reads.
“In addition, we continue to be concerned that we have not heard from from you recently and it does not appear that your sales results are meeting the minimum requirements outlined.”
Sterling’s intensive treatment schedules had interfered with the amount of time he could devote to sales.
“We are concerned for your welfare and that of your family, however … without adequate job performance, it will be difficult to continue the current arrangement,” the letter states.
In the subsequent dismissal letter, dated Dec. 12, Harrison said the chamber “wish(ed) things were different.”
“It’s not a cut-and-dry thing,” Sterling said, reflecting on the chamber’s decision and the widespread support he’d received after his diagnosis, both from chamber officials and the community at large. “The (chamber) members deserve a lot. I wish I could just come back healthy and happy.”
Chamber officials have declined to comment on whether they are considering pursuing a search for a new president and CEO.
If and when that search begins, Sterling said, he hopes the chamber will seek “somebody that has the experience to get businesses to understand what Mesa is and why it’s so important to have it as a neighbor, and why the pizza shop needs Boeing and vice versa.”
“This chamber has been here for 107 years-plus. It needs to be a strong chamber now more than ever,” he said. “Right now is not the time to fail.”
As for his future, Sterling acknowledged that he isn’t sure where the next few months will take him. He said he hopes to continue helping his city, even if the Mesa chamber no longer is listed on his business card.
“I feel like I still have something to give,” he said.