Councilman claims ‘no conflict’

District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales railed in September that the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a struggling organization he’s long been a part of, was being treated unfairly.

He bristled at only six months of public funding for his associate Raymond Chavez to keep leading an effort building business ties with Mexico with a lack of verifiable results to show for years of taxpayer investment.

“We live in a society right now that people get butthurt because you get questioned,” Gonzales said at the time. “I don’t think it’s right. People should understand that if you are going to serve, you are going to be questioned.”

But it’s the councilman who now faces questions about his involvement in the abrupt removal of Hispanic Chamber leaders as they were about to propose reforms that would have included doing away with Chavez’ paid position. And Gonzales refuses to answer them, while insisting his role in firing former CEO Price Arredondo did not conflict with his duties as a city official who funds the organization with tax money.

“There’s no conflict of interest. Period,” Gonzales said Tuesday in a brief interview.

He refused to answer further questions. In 2017, Gonzales cast major votes with the Hispanic Chamber in mind, including the firing of the city manager and removing the head of the Odessa Development Corporation, a board of appointees that oversees tax dollars intended for economic development.

Gonzales’ recent comments followed a joint Tuesday meeting between the Odessa City Council and the ODC. The meeting was spurred by revelations at a March 8 ODC meeting that Arredondo and two members of the organization’s board had been pushed out just hours earlier.

Citing uncertainty about who was pulling the purse strings, the five ODC members moved unanimously to cancel the Hispanic Chamber’s contract. The City Council will consider ratifying that decision as soon as next week.

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 led by Chavez.

An audit of the Hispanic Chamber is underway, city officials said.

Even if the contract is terminated, as Interim City Attorney Gary Landers recommended, the organization would keep getting public money for about two months. Meanwhile, the Hispanic Chamber could ask for new funding.

Still, even without City Council approval, Chavez’ publicly funded position is set to expire at the end of this month. He was paid about $58,000 in the past six months.

Ongoing troubles with the Hispanic Chamber prompted louder calls for accountability from past supporters. Mayor David Turner has criticized poor management by the Hispanic Chamber. District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton said the city should not consider a new contract for the Hispanic Chamber until an audit is finished.

Arredondo and other ousted officials said the people who fired them included Gonzales, Chavez’ wife and granddaughter, and allies including former ODC board member Mario Contreras and past chair Ben Rubio.

Rubio introduced himself March 8 as the Hispanic Chamber’s new leader. He declined to explain the leadership shake-up and has not responded to interview requests. Neither has Chavez. Both were absent Tuesday.

But Gonzales was in a position Tuesday to explain the upheaval to fellow city leaders. He didn’t.

Turner, who was out of town Tuesday, called for greater transparency with the Hispanic Chamber.

Turner said he would avoid the sort of dual roles Gonzales has taken on to prevent a conflict.

The mayor is a member of three local chambers but said a rank-and-file membership is different from a governing role.

“They are given money by the city and the executive board is determining how they are going to spend it,” Turner said “To me, you can’t be directing the money the city has given you in making decisions on personnel and things like that. In my mind, your vote carries more clout because you are one of the members determining how much they are going to get and everything at the end of the year. To me, that’s a conflict of interest.”