Firings at Latino Economic Development Center trigger ruckus, threaten grants

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 12, 2013

The firing of the top official of the region’s premier Latino economic opportunity group has triggered an ugly wrangle over mission, finances and race. The brouhaha could threaten critical grants that the nonprofit receives from the Montgomery County and District governments.

The board of the Latino Economic Development Center ousted Manuel Hidalgo as executive director in April after eight years on the job. Since then, Hidalgo has been telling former colleagues and others that the move showed the group was straying from its 22-year commitment to help the Hispanic community’s neediest.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Hidalgo’s view is that the board has come under control of bankers who want to shift the center’s vision toward small-business lending, including to non-Latino owners, in order to boost interest revenue.

He can’t talk publicly under terms of his severance agreement. But associates say Hidalgo has said the board favors the change because it would help the center become more economically self-reliant.

Hidalgo thinks such an approach sacrifices services that are less lucrative but vital to the community. These include foreclosure counseling, small-business technical support and organizing tenants to buy their apartment buildings.

Time will tell whether Hidalgo’s worries are justified or arise merely from the bitterness of a man who just lost a $134,000-a-year job. The center denies it’s altering its mission, but it has been thrust on the defensive.

The ruckus illustrates the financial pressures faced by nonprofit groups dedicated to help the poor at a time when neither government nor private support is easy to come by.

Colleen Dailey — who was vice chairwoman of the board when it fired Hidalgo and who succeeded him as interim executive director — said his complaints are unwarranted.

“There has been no change in services or programs, and no discussion of change,” Dailey said.

She acknowledged that the board had pressed Hidalgo in January to cut staff expenses but said there was no special effort to protect the lending program.

Some of Hidalgo’s former colleagues are furious at him for making a stink.

Operations Director Katherine Drew Rios wrote Hidalgo in an e-mail June 3, “Whatever you’re trying to do to stain the Board’s name is actually just staining the name of [the center]. It is making things tremendously stressful and difficult.”

But Hidalgo is not the only one raising the issue. The center’s former chief financial officer, Elio Reyes, was fired in May after he raised similar concerns with the D.C. and Montgomery departments that provide much of the center’s funding.

As a result, Montgomery said it was reviewing whether to extend a $70,000-a-year economic development grant to the center beyond October. A county spokesman said continued funding would depend on whether the center maintains its small-business counseling work.

In the District, the Department of Housing and Community Development also indicated it would watch the center closely to make sure it continues to merit the $911,000 it annually receives in grants for small-business and housing assistance.

The center was created in 1991 to help marginalized people in the Latino community after the Mount Pleasant riots. It has won awards and praise for its work in areas such as Adams Morgan and Wheaton.

Racial issues have aggravated the controversy. Hidalgo and Reyes have expressed unhappiness that Hidalgo, a Cuban American, was replaced by Dailey, a non-Latino, and that four of the seven board members are non-Latinos. The chair, James Taylor, is an executive with Capital One Bank.

Dailey dismissed their concerns.

“I think it’s comical because Manny [Hidalgo] chose all the members that sit on the board. Now he’s turning around and criticizing [the center] for having an Anglo board,” she said.

She also said she would not be a candidate for the permanent job of executive director.

“There’s a consensus that this should be someone who has strong roots in the Latino community, and that is not me,” Dailey said.

In a sign that the complaints have had an effect, the center has announced creation of a community advisory board, including local Latino leaders.

The board of directors will continue to have the power, however. Four of its members work for banks or financial firms.

Local governments and the rest of the region have cause to watch closely. The center shouldn’t let a desire to maximize revenue divert it from its mission to lift up the poor.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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