Hispanic Chamber upheaval prompts concern

The Odessa Development Corporation moved to cut off funding for the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce following the abrupt removal of the organization’s new leaders who were about to propose reforms that would include ending public payments for the leader of a struggling effort to build business ties with Mexico.

The ousted leaders of the Hispanic Chamber said District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales was one of the members who fired CEO Price Arredondo and pushed out top ranking board members before the ODC meeting on Thursday. Gonzales did not respond to a request for comment, but it raised immediate questions about the councilman inserting himself in a governing position on an organization that the City Council also funds.

The ODC heard none of the details about the officials’ ouster during their Thursday meeting — when they were informed that just minutes earlier a new director, who is possibly collecting a publicly-funded salary, had been installed.

“There are concerns of the ODC and we don’t know who to address them to,” ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt said. “. . . On behalf of the taxpayers, we are concerned about literally who is in charge and the monthly expenditures.”

The five ODC members, who are appointed to their volunteer posts overseeing tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, voted unanimously to trigger the termination of the contract with the Hispanic Chamber. Interim City Attorney Gary Landers outlined that option, which will give the organization a chance to submit a new funding request and answer questions before the contract expires.

Under the terms of the contract, the Hispanic Chamber will keep getting public funds for 60 days.

But the salary for Raymond Chavez, who heads the so-called “Mexico Initiative” that involves regular trips to the country, will end sooner. Chavez was allotted $58,000 for six-months of work intended as a transition while the Hispanic Chamber found professional leadership for the effort that has struggled since Chavez founded it in 2014. His salary is set to expire at the end of the month.

Chavez did not respond to a request for comment. He has presided for years over the Mexico Initiative effort as it faced repeated controversy related to a lack of transparency that included poor accounting, unwillingness to work with other city officials and a struggle to document any results on public money invested.

But Chavez is also a close associate of Gonzales. And Gonzales’ support for his public position played a role in the councilman’s efforts to remove public officials who he believed stood in the way of it.

These officials included ODC President Jimmy Breaux, who was ousted as ODC president in May 2017 by a City Council majority. And they included City Manager Richard Morton, who Gonzales accused of failing to support the Hispanic Chamber before a successful motion to fire him in September.

Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000, paid in monthly installments. Of that money about $167,000 was dedicated to the Mexico Initiative.

On Tuesday, the new Hispanic Chamber CEO Ben Rubio, asked to delay discussion about doing away with Chavez’ publicly funded salary but said he understood ODC board members’ concerns. Rubio said he had been appointed 30 minutes earlier and would be in charge.

“With all due respect I don’t want to get into any details right now as far as why I’m sitting here and why 30 minutes ago I’m the interim-interim,” Rubio told the board. “But those will be addressed, I promise you that.”

ODC board members said the news of the leadership shakeup “disconcerting,” “confusing” and “unsettling.”

“I personally am very concerned about any more funding going to this effort given the circumstances,” Triplett-Hurt said.

Rubio, a former chair of the Hispanic Chamber and mentee of Chavez, was one of the officials who fired Arredondo during a regular meeting of the organization before the OHCC meeting on Thursday, according to Arredondo and two other officials involved in the meeting. They said the others were allies and family members of Chavez — his wife, granddaughter and former ODC board member Mario Contreras.

Several had not been active in the organization for months and only recently began paying their $300 annual dues again, said Sandra Ramirez, who chaired the Hispanic Chamber board and said she was excluded from the conversation.

Arredondo, Ramirez and Chris Arredondo (Price Arredondo’s distant cousin who served as vice chair) said one of the controversial items were changes to the organization’s bylaws that would have prevented former board members such as Chavez’ family members from voting on the direction of the organization.

Price Arredondo said he proposed those changes on the advice of a lawyer.

But Price Arredondo also said Chavez’ job had proven controversial even within the organization.

“The position was of concern,” Price Arredondo said. He said he met weeks ago with Chavez and Gonzales about the Mexico Initiative. “I met with him, and told him that we needed to go through a period of transition. He told me that he would not go through any transition until his contract was over.”

Price Arredondo said Chavez refused to share information even with him in his role as the head of the Hispanic Chamber.

“That’s one of the things that I have been trying to put my hands on — which are good prospects and which are not?” Price Arredondo said. “Basically I’ve not gotten any cooperation from Raymond.”

Price Arredondo’s proposal would have asked the ODC to replace Chavez’s paid position coordinating the Mexico Initiative with a lower paid position focused on supporting Hispanic-businesses and working with another paid employee of the organization who already works in Chihuahua.

“He could have applied if he wanted to,” Price Arredondo said, referring to Chavez. “But I felt that we needed somebody who had some economic development experience beyond just working in Chihuahua — someone who would work in the community who has research experience.”

Price Arredondo had been hired at the end of 2017, after Ramirez, a new chair of the organization’s board offered him the job. Price Arredondo had served in other organizations supporting Hispanic businesses. He was based out of Tyler and commuted to Odessa a few times a month.

Ramirez and Chris Arredondo said they joined the Hispanic chamber board and looked forward to reforming the organization with Price, an effort that would include greater transparency and advocacy for Odessa businesses.

“We wanted to create this culture where it’s transparent, and we wanted to be those strong leaders, where the community felt we were their advocates and they could come to us,” Ramirez said.

Chris Arredondo said he was disappointed that the Hispanic Chamber could lose its public funding, but like Ramirez, he said no longer felt comfortable volunteering with the organization.

“I don’t know when they came into bombard our meeting if that’s what they wanted,” he said. “But just the outcome is sad for us.”