Councilman defends role in Hispanic Chamber shakeup

District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales insisted Tuesday that his role in firing the leadership of the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce did not conflict with his duties as a city official who funds that organization with tax money.

His comments followed a joint meeting between the Odessa City Council and the Odessa Development Corporation, the board of council appointees that oversees tens of millions of dollars intended for economic development.

The ODC funds the Hispanic Chamber but recently moved to terminate the contract with the organization amid concerns after its new leaders were abruptly removed as they were about to propose reforms.

“From what I understand there were some changes that was made,” Gonzales told a TV reporter after the meeting. “So at the end of the day they were wanting to see if they could know what actually happened and which direction the chamber is going to go. So they have a right to ask that, and I feel that as a council we have a right to ask that.”

But despite his direct involvement in making the changes, Gonzales refused to answer those questions in a brief interview with the OA.

The City Council and the ODC were not scheduled to vote on Tuesday night, but the City Council could consider ratifying the economic development board’s decision as soon as next week. Instead, the city officials discussed Interim City Attorney Gary Landers’ recommendation to end the current contract with the Hispanic Chamber for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Terms of ending that contract would still fund the Hispanic Chamber for about two months. That means the public support would cease just as the city starts to review the organization’s budget request for the coming year. And in the meantime, the Hispanic Chamber would likely submit a new budget request to cover the next several months.

“I fully believe they’ll have everything way before that 60 days,” said Tim Edgmon, an ODC board member appointed by Gonzales and past chair of the Hispanic Chamber.

Edgmon described the process ahead as “harsh, but it’s the way it needs to be done.”

He was one of the five ODC members who voted unanimously on March 8 to begin the process of ending the public payments to the organization amid concerns that they did not know who was controlling the public money it received.

The shake-up in Hispanic Chamber leadership came just hours before the ousted CEO Price Arredondo was about to propose changes to the organization that would include ending public payments to the leader of a controversial effort to build business ties with Mexico, called the “Mexico Initiative.” Two board members also said they were pushed out.

At the ODC meeting the same day, Ben Rubio, a former chair of the Hispanic Chamber, was introduced as the new Hispanic Chamber leader. Rubio was absent Tuesday and he has declined to explain the reason for the leadership change, which the the ousted officials said he helped execute.

An audit of the Hispanic Chamber is underway, city officials said Tuesday. District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton said the City Council should not consider renewing a Hispanic Chamber contract until an audit is finished.

“I think I took a lot of heat for actually stepping up for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here for the last year and a half — So now it’s time for results,” Hamilton said. “Now, for whatever reason, this has happened. Alright, let’s get this straightened out and get them back on track to do whatever needs to be done.”

For years, Gonzales has been a champion of the Hispanic Chamber’s “Mexico Initiative” and he is a close associate of the leader of the effort, Raymond Chavez, who collected a publicly funded salary of about $58,000 over the past six months. Since Chavez founded the Mexico Initiative in 2014, there’s been little documented progress of results such as new jobs or businesses created.

And some early supporters such as Mayor David Turner, who was absent Tuesday, have in recent months criticized poor management by the Hispanic Chamber and a struggle documenting results

Even without City Council approval, Chavez’ publicly funded position is set to expire at the end of this month — unless council members and the ODC approve restoring it.

Gonzales refused to answer questions about the reasons for Arredondo’s ouster. He told fellow City Council members and ODC appointees that Rubio was absent “under the advisement of his attorney” and said that is “because he is still, from my understanding, doing an investigation of everything that happened and why they did what they did.”

“They,” Gonzales said, was the board. But despite his involvement, he offered no further explanation.

Arredondo said after his firing that in addition to Gonzales, the people who voted to remove him included Chavez’ wife and granddaughter, along with allies including Rubio and former ODC board member Mario Contreras.

Gonzales said in an interview that inserting himself in a governing role of the Hispanic Chamber was akin to serving on boards as a representative of the City Council. The City Council makes appointments to boards of city-supported organizations like the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance. The Hispanic Chamber is not one of those boards.

But Gonzales still blamed the apparent conflict on media accounts. And he said Landers “has not told me that I did anything wrong.”

“There’s no conflict of interest. Period,” Gonzales said. “No conflict of interest.”

He refused to answer further questions from the OA.