Attendance at the Maryland Hispanic Business Conference on Tuesday dipped from last year, with various explanations offered by organizers and others.
In February, 2012 Chairwoman Maria Jose Zelaya and 2010 Chairwoman Lorna Virgili both resigned from the foundation that produces the annual conference, alleging that organizers violated nonprofit rules and failed to file federal tax returns.
But conference leaders say those issues have been resolved and cited other reasons for the smaller attendance this year.
The conference, held at the Montgomery County Conference Center, drew from 500 to 550 people, down from 580 to 600 last year, conference President Julio C. Parra in an email to The Gazette.
"So there were fewer people this year but we expected that with the conference date being the same as the first day of the Democratic National Convention," Parra said. "Due to the DNC date we were not able to confirm our usual political leaders as keynote speakers and attract certain attendees who want to connect with these political leaders."
He said the resignations in February had no impact on the conference, saying Zelaya and Virgili were members of the planning committee and had no involvement with the organization's governance.
Others cited other reasons.
"Maybe there are a little less people because of the rain," said Barbara Ebel, labor exchange administrator for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "I think the workshop quality is higher this year. I'm pleased at what I've seen, particularly the export-import panel."
Alida Zuniga, an agent with Erie Insurance in Washington, D.C., noted that more tables appeared empty during the luncheon compared with last year. She also said the setup was different, with panels being on the lower floor and exhibitors on the upper floor, which was the reverse of last year.
"Lunch was about the same, but there's more vendors than last year," said Robert Carpenter, a lender relations specialist with the U.S. Small Business Adminstration and a panelist.
Rafael Perez, project manager for Sena Construction Services in Frederick, said he saw more significant changes this year. Perez has attended the conference for several years, although he missed last year's.
"There were panelists back then. Each panel had about five or six panelists," he said.
He also lamented the lack of "bigger players," such as construction companies, particularly M. Luis Construction of Laurel.
However, Perez said, the conference was "definitely still effective," despite the changes, with the financial panels particularly useful.
"We come here for new relationships and new contacts. That's really what it's about," said Abdi Russi, financial center leader for Branch Banking and Trust in Gaithersburg.
Parra said all of the conference's sponsors returned this year and were happy with the conference.
"The continuity of the conference is due to the Executive Director, Ms. Maria Rodriguez, who has been involved with the conference for several years," he wrote.
Regarding the issues that led to the resignations this winter, poor governance and fiscal mismanagement occur more often among minority groups, particularly chambers of commerce, than in more general groups, said Jorge Ribas, president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Germantown, in an email to The Gazette.
Ribas explained that the Western Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce withdrew from the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce over similar concerns in 2006.
He said his chamber offered to work with the conference several times.
"One of the most common problems our chamber confronts is when 'leaders' of other Hispanic chambers make the spurious claim, often [to] our face, that we do not want to collaborate with them when the opposite is true," said Ribas, who also has a Laytonsville consulting company, Ribas & Associates.
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County is no longer involved with the conference, although the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helped organize and promote the event.
"Everything is very convoluted," Ribas said, adding that Hispanic groups cannot keep operating at these standards.
He said such issues are often not reported because they are seen as damaging to the Hispanic business community. But he also pointed out that things are slowing improving, as the Internal Revenue Service puts more effort into addressing fiscal mismanagement.
"Regarding the conference, in general it was a great conference," Parra said. "We're here to serve the Hispanic community and provide service and information that will help small businesses grow and succeed. That's what we're about."