One of the main jobs of a chamber of commerce is to bring businesspeople together to schmooze and trade business cards. Lately, though, one local chamber is excelling at just the opposite.
In recent months, the leadership of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County has become increasingly divided.
At the center of the conflict is its president, Carmen Ortiz Larsen.
Larsen is running for a second one-year term against Alma Preciado, a board member who is one of the chamber's founders. The election is Tuesday.
Larsen's critics say that under her watch, the chamber has lost its way. Several current and former board members are dissatisfied with everything from how the meetings are run to the state of the group's finances.
"It's been spiraling out of control. It needs to regain its focus and start doing things properly," said Maribel Torres-Pinero, a former president and founder of the organization. "The chamber can't move forward because it keeps having internal fights over things that should not be issues, such as how the elections need to be run, and the financial transparency."
"The current perception I have of the chamber is an organization in crisis and the members fractioned. The issues will continue to fester and cripple the chamber if they are not resolved once and for all," said board member Mariana C. Cordier in a July 3 e-mail to the organization's board members.
"A lot of little stupid stuff has happened," said former board member Lorca Beebe-Diaz. "Everybody is invested in proving each other wrong instead of standing for the community."
The Rockville-based chamber formed five years ago to serve as a voice for Hispanic-owned businesses in Montgomery County. The county's Office of Economic Development awarded the group an $18,000 grant to help it plan its first annual gala fundraiser, which raises scholarship money.
The chamber has an annual budget of about $70,000 and no full-time staff. It is run by its 15-member board, whose members are elected to one- and three-year terms by the membership. The board then elects the president and vice president. The chamber board also oversees a sister organization that offers free technical assistance to Hispanic-owned businesses trying to secure government contracts.
Larsen, president of Aquas Inc., a Chevy Chase-based technology services company that works with government clients, said that the chamber's membership has grown from 90 to 190 businesses since she became president and that she has built valuable relationships for the group, such as securing a seat for the chamber on the board of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. She added that the chamber's monthly networking luncheons are well attended and the organization is in touch with 900 businesses through its mailing list.
Other board members counter that they have no idea how large the membership is. They say Larsen has refused to let them see the full membership list to verify who has paid their dues. Larsen said she didn't release the entire list because of privacy concerns.
Board members say Larsen is also blocking a review of the group's financial records. In recent weeks, the board's finance oversight committee has requested to see the records, which Larsen maintains. Larsen initially released a partial set of records.
Alejandro M. Mendoza, a Silver Spring accountant and a member of the chamber's finance committee, wrote an e-mail to board members dated Sept. 8 in which he calls Larsen's response "a MAJOR red flag."
"I'm beginning to worry about the credibility of the data," he wrote. "We hold a fiduciary duty to our member and personal liability risk if these matters are not taken care of ASAP."
Mendoza, who is running for vice president of the board, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Preciado also sits on the organization's finance oversight committee. After being unable to see the requested records, she wrote in a Sept. 8 report: "The committee has attempted to request access and full disclosure of the accounting information system to our president . . . but we have encountered consistent blockage. We can not determine our financial position, recourses used, financial responsibilities, bank account activity, the Balance Sheet Statement and The Profit and Loss Statement as of June 30, 2004."
Preciado declined to comment, citing the upcoming election.
Larsen said one of her employees maintains the group's financial records. When asked why she has not allowed her employee to fully release the group's 2004 financial information to the board, Larsen said the records are available for review at her company's offices by appointment. "I don't want people to take files and walk out with them."
Larsen, who has since released the requested information, said she has nothing to hide. "I've always encouraged people to come look at the books," she said. "I'm glad to be held accountable and called to the table."
The fight over access to the chamber's books is just the latest source of conflict within the group. This summer, several board members voiced concerns after two Aquas employees attempted to secure seats on the chamber board.
Beatriz Ramacciotti, who is listed on the chamber's and Aquas's Web sites as an Aquas employee, sits on the chamber board. Larsen said Ramacciotti has since resigned from Aquas.
The chamber has no rules limiting the number of seats one organization can hold on the board, board Secretary Jorge Restrepo said. But one business holding so many seats has made some members uneasy.
"The perception of a monopoly on the board by a single business must be resolved," Cordier said in a July 3 e-mail.
In the end, member businesses did not vote the two Aquas candidates on the board.
Larsen described the conflicts among the group's leaders as growing pains.
When Larsen came to the chamber, "it was a young, unstructured organization," she said. "I've spent much of the past year picking up the pieces."
She said that despite the recent turmoil, she still wants to be reelected. "The bottom line is we need to serve our members," she said.