Hispanic Chamber quiet, funding lapses

Public payments to the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce stopped in late May, and the struggling organization missed a deadline to request more funding from the city.

Now, as the city’s Odessa Development Corporation prepares for the coming fiscal year, the Hispanic Chamber is not included in a draft of the plan meant to guide the board’s work. The volunteer head of the ODC also says it’s unlikely the Hispanic Chamber will be able to reform in time to get funding in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

“If they have a full staff that is qualified to conduct economic development, if the credentials are such that they are trained, experienced practiced personnel, then we would give it consideration,” ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt said. “But to put that kind of a staff together in the next couple of weeks is pretty tough. I’m not saying they can’t do it, but that organization needs to prove it has stability and qualified people.”

But Hispanic Chamber officials won’t say whether they will seek more money, months after saying they planned to do so once they righted the organization. The deadline to request money from the ODC was June 7.

Months after self-reporting that there might have been “misconduct” by past leaders who managed public money, the Hispanic Chamber has yet to disclose whether there actually was. The public, and the ODC, remain in the dark about what work the Hispanic Chamber has done in the months since city leaders triggered the end of the nonprofit organization’s contract in March.

The ODC had asked for information including a third-party audit, a copy of the organization’s bylaws and policies, and an explanation of any relationship between the city-funded nonprofit and a charity that lists the same city office as its address.

Triplett-Hurt said the ODC still does not have answers but that city officials are organizing a special meeting in the coming weeks so Hispanic Chamber officials can present them.

“I think we are in the dark because they are afraid to say anything because they are still working on things,” Triplett-Hurt said. But she said she did not expect the ODC would get the answers it needs before board members approve a budget in the coming months.

“It’s just too soon,” Triplett-Hurt said. “There’s no way anybody can get all of that together and have a running viable organization.”

Hispanic Chamber Interim President Ben Rubio was scheduled to update the Odessa Development Corporation on Thursday with a “final report,” but he asked the board to delay his presentation because his lawyer and Interim City Attorney Gary Landers were not there.

“To be honest with you I kind of got conflicting reports as far as legal, and of course they are not here,” Rubio told the board. “My attorney is also not here.”

Asked after the meeting if the Hispanic Chamber would submit a late budget request, Rubio said “I don’t know. You know what? No comment. Quote me on that.” Then he refused to answer further questions.

The ODC moved to terminate the Hispanic Chamber’s contract on March 8, after the abrupt removal of its leaders earlier that day. Former CEO Price Arredondo has denied any wrongdoing.

Arredondo’s ouster came just before he was set to present a proposal to the ODC for changes to the Hispanic Chamber that would have included ending the paid position heading the Mexico Initiative, an effort to build business ties with Mexico.

Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000. That included about $167,000 for the Mexico Initiative, which lapsed at the end of March.

The paid position had been filled by Raymond Chavez, who founded the effort in 2014. Since then, the Hispanic Chamber faced repeated controversy as the organization struggled to document progress amid criticism from city officials of poor management. For this fiscal year, the city had approved paying Chavez about $58,000 to keep managing the project for six months while the Hispanic Chamber sought professional leadership.

Chavez did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Neither did District 5 City Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, who was one of the Hispanic Chamber members who fired the former leadership of the organization.

Landers was tasked with the review of the Hispanic Chamber and negotiating a new contract. He was out of town and unavailable for comment this week. But previously Landers said in April that the review would include “where all the public money went and where it’s been accounted for.”

Later that month, Rubio assured two ODC board members and city attorneys that all of the public money given to the Hispanic Chamber could be accounted for, said Triplett-Hurt, who was one of the attendees. She said she still expects that the Hispanic Chamber will be audited. It had been the only organization funded by the ODC that didn’t get independent audits.

“We need to say ‘Show us how you know that’,” Triplett-Hurt said. “Audits protect two people: They protect the people that are being audited and they protect the people who gave them the money.”