WASHINGTON - The Independent Community Bankers of America is taking a tough stand against a merger of two state trade groups in Washington.

The national trade group for community bankers has agreed to spend $25,000 to organize opposition to a merger of the Washington Bankers Association and the Washington Independent Community Bankers Association.

The ICBA has hired the state's former banking commissioner, Mike Edwards, to lead the effort. If the two groups do combine, the ICBA has vowed to hire Mr. Edwards to start a rival group to be called the Independent Community Bankers of Washington.

It is an unusual move for a national trade group, but the ICBA views this as a fight to buck a trend and preserve its links with state trade groups in 36 other states.

State trade groups traditionally have affiliated with either the ICBA or the American Bankers Association. But in three states - Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee - the trade groups have combined and agreed to link up with both the ICBA and the ABA.

The ICBA has told its affiliate in Washington that if a merger occurs and the combined group affiliates with the ABA, then it may not also link to the ICBA.

In an interview Wednesday, ICBA executive vice president Kenneth A. Guenther said that maintaining ties to both groups obscures community banks' distinct position on public policy issues. "This is part of the ongoing competition between trade associations," he said. "It stills the uniquely grassroots voice of community banking."

A third national trade group, America's Community Bankers representing thrifts, has seen 13 of its state affiliates merge with banking groups. Most have kept ties with both the ABA and ACB. Mr. Guenther is concerned that the ABA is urging its state affiliates to merge with thrift and community banking rivals.

But Gary Fields, director of the ABA's state association division, denied that. "ABA has no formal or strategic plan in that regard," he said. "We leave that strictly to the bankers in the state."

Still, the ICBA is working hard in Washington to keep its state affiliate independent. "We have put $25,000 on the table to fight the merger," he said.

Bankers who oppose the merger talk passionately.

"Washington independent community bankers will not be railroaded into a decision without a thorough examination of the facts," said Jim Tribbett, president of Bank of Whitman in Colfax and president-elect of the Washington independents. "It's a staff-driven thing without the full, open discussion by the membership."

His group's executive vice president, Jim Pishue, denied that he is advocating the merger. "I'm not pushing for it nor am I pushing against it," he said. "It's really up to our membership."

Bruce Koppe, executive vice president of the Washington Bankers Association, is retiring this summer and can afford to be less ambivalent. A merger makes sense because a majority of Washington state bankers belong to both groups, he said.

"We ought to have as powerful a voice as we can, a single voice," he said. "The time has come to streamline the whole association business."

Mergers have claimed many banks, leaving both groups with mostly community banks. As of Sept. 30, Washington had 80 commercial banks, with assets totaling $13 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Forty-six of those banks had less than $100 million of assets and held a combined $1.8 billion.

By comparison, at yearend 1991 the state was home to 93 banks with nearly $40 billion of assets. Of those, community banks numbered 68 and had $2.5 billion of assets.

At this point a merger looks unlikely, because the Washington trade groups plan to proceed only if 75% of their members agree. "We want a supermajority," said Linda Dryden, president of the Washington independents and a senior vice president at Frontier Bank in Everett.

She said a vote is likely to take place in late March or early April. If votes were cast today, she predicted, she said, "it would probably pass - but maybe not by a supermajority."

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