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As right-wing politicians have expanded their control on Odessa’s City Council, questions around bullying and intimidation remain

Mari Willis walks away after commenting on the firings of Michael Marrero and Natasha Brooks
Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Odessa City Council hears comments from concerned citizens following the firings of Odessa city manager and city attorney in January.

Texas Monthly reporter Michael Hardy looked into the political motivations of Odessa’s leaders in his article, "A Right-wing Cabal Took Over Odessa’s Municipal Government. City Employees Are Heading for the Exits."Marfa Public Radio spoke to Hardy about his reporting.

Led by Mayor Javier Joven, the Odessa City Council has been embroiled in controversy since they voted to fire two top officials back in December and then again earlier this year.

Following the decision, city employees accused council members of bullying and intimidation.

While a recent investigation concluded there was no evidence of these allegations, questions remain and some city staff are choosing to leave.

Interview Highlights

Mayor Javier Joven’s Coalition

Politicians that lean ultra-conservative, like Odessa Mayor Joven, have come into power in Odessa in the last few years. Joven and his allies have a majority on the city council after three new council members were elected last November.

According to Hardy, “A right-wing faction, you might call it a cabal, because it operates pretty secretly, has essentially taken over the municipal government.”

This has allowed Joven to pursue goals like establishing Odessa as a sanctuary for the unborn. Hardy found that this coalition was built in a coordinated effort by the Ector County Republican Party.

“The party helps recruit candidates, and it provides a lot of guidance behind the scenes on how its elected members should operate,” said Hardy.

Former city employee details toxic work culture

Until recently, Casey Hallmark was the executive director of Downtown Odessa, a city-funded nonprofit, and has publicly come out with allegations of bullying and intimidation.

Hardy said Hallmark “almost immediately, she ran into a wall of suspicion and harassment from city leadership, who considered her a ‘crazy liberal.”She’s outlined how Joven and other council members have mistreated her.

“Mayor Javier Joven would come to her office, spend hours there going on these bizarre rants about corruption,” said Hardy.

After coming forward, he said Hallmark eventually resigned from her position. Hardy said Hallmark isn’t the only employee that’s experienced this kind of treatment at the city.

According to Hardy, “I spoke to multiple current and former employees of Odessa, who have told me that it's a toxic work atmosphere, they're terrified to speak up about things that they see.”

Since last November, around 20 city employees have retired, quit, or have been fired, according to Hardy.

The council’s priorities vs. the public’s

Hardy said it’s hard to tell what the goals are at this point for Joven and the council’. “It really just seems to be a matter of power for the sake of power,” he said.

He saidit seems like the council is replacing staff and various members of boards with political allies.

“The irony here is that they ran against the Odessa power structure…but all that they've done since gaining power is replaced the old cronyism with a new kind of cronyism,” Hardy explained.

A lawsuit was filed against the city in response to their recent actions and Hardy said there are efforts to recall Joven and other city council members.