Sunday, July 15, 2007

Club mum over its rejection of Hispanic businesswoman

Rotary International's service clubs are devoted to "world understanding and peace."

The concept of understanding seems to be lost in Farmers Branch.

The Farmers Branch Rotary Club board has rejected a membership application from a Latina businesswoman.

Elizabeth Villafranca, owner of Cuquita's Restaurants in Dallas and Farmers Branch, said she was "thrilled" when a Rotary member invited her to join, even though she would be the only Latina and one of only three women in the club of approximately 35.

"The Rotary believes what I believe," she said. "It seemed like a great way to get involved and serve my community."

She doesn't know what went on behind closed doors. But she suspects that she was rejected because she argued earlier this year against city laws meant to chase away illegal immigrants and anyone who speaks languages other than English.

Mayor Pro Tem Tim O'Hare, architect of the new laws, is on the Rotary board. Council members David Koch and Tim Scott are in the club.

"They've even turned the Rotary Club into a political organization," Villafranca said. "It's disappointing."

She now hopes to join a Rotary based in Carrollton.

The Farmers Branch club meets Mondays at the Wyndham hotel near the Dallas Galleria.

Tim Hauter, a vice president at Town North Bank, is the new club president. He wouldn't discuss Villafranca.

First, I asked how to spell his name.

He replied, "Why do you want to know?"

Asked how the board judges applicants, he turned away and said back over his shoulder, "The Four-Way Test!"

That four-line ethical test has guided Rotary for more than 60 years. It goes this way:

"Is it the TRUTH?"

"Is it FAIR to all concerned?"


"Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?"


Nothing there that would disqualify Villafranca.

Mitzi Davis, immediate past president and the only woman member at Monday's meeting, said officers were "working really hard" to bring in more women and more diversity. The club added another woman and an African-American man two years ago.

Farmers Branch's population is one-third Hispanic.

"A potential member was presented to the board," she said. "The board acted. I really don't have any other comment."

The Manual of Procedure for Rotary leaders says that clubs should include "all fully qualified prospective members" and that politics should be limited to "balanced programs and discussions."

Rotary guidelines do limit the number of members from the same profession. Villafranca said she didn't see another restaurateur.

Richard Gilman of Richardson, a retired high school speech and drama teacher, is the Rotary district governor in the Dallas region.

He hadn't heard about Villafranca's application.

"Rotary wants more members," he said. "We'll do anything to get more young people of any culture. We're looking for anyone who's interested in service, and in doing good work."

The organization encourages clubs to reflect their communities but doesn't set rules, he said.

"Several clubs are still the old guard, and they don't want to change," he said, adding that most complaints involve the lack of interfaith opening prayers.

O'Hare led the Farmers Branch Rotary's opening prayer. When I introduced myself after the meeting and asked him to explain what makes a good Rotary member, he turned away and walked toward the hotel door.

Villafranca said another member had invited her to join "to show diversity."

"They wanted the Rotary Club to show the true colors of Farmers Branch," she said.

It has.


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