However it is important to deal with the issue of censorship from the onset. Censorship is neither good for a community nor should it be acceptable that a group of individuals, with the help of city officials, take it upon themselves to determine what public art should be showcased in El Paso. That is why it is important that we focus on whether censorship drove the removal of the artwork.
When this issue first came out there were many of us that submitted open records requests to the city in search for information. Many of those individuals were working alongside of Debbie Nathan on her Facebook page, Chucopedia.
Debbie Nathan posted a series of 61 pages of emails on her Chucopedia page late Monday night. The email series is the result of her open records request. I used her open records results as the basis of my piece today.
The emails clearly prove that Tommy Gonzalez ordered the art work removed. Gonzalez unilaterally ordered the artwork removed because there was controversy about the gun fragments in the art piece. Whether the guns fragments are appropriate is immaterial because the discussion about the guns should be had openly and transparently in front of the community.
This did not happen. Instead, what happened is that one individual took it upon themselves to speak as to what the standards of the community will be. That individual is Tommy Gonzalez. Gonzales is not an elected official and thus his duties do not include making public policy.
Ordering public art to be removed is public policy. It is highly inappropriate for Tommy Gonzalez to order it removed. His actions should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.
As is usual, there are those that are going to argue “prove it” in order to distract from the importance of what has transpired. There are also some of you that will use the gun issue as a distraction to the fundamental argument. The fundamental issue is whether Tommy Gonzalez had the authority to remove artwork because of controversy over how it was perceived by a segment of the community.
As the city manager, it is my position that Tommy Gonzalez did not have that authority. Furthermore, it is also my belief that his actions are nothing more than censorship.
I realize that those are strong statements and thus they deserve proof. For proof, all you need to do is look at the time line of the events and you will clearly see how the artwork was censored.
On Friday, March 13, 2015 the Uplift statue was removed from the Country Club roundabout. According to public records, it took about two hours to remove the partially installed artwork.
Here is how the events transpired.
On the day the artwork was removed, at 11:11, Alma Ramsey, the liaison for the Love Road Neighborhood Association, sent Cortney Niland an email advising Niland that the neighborhood association “has issues with the Country Club Road Project.” Ramsey articulated ten items her group has problems with. Except for item number nine, all of the issues the group pointed out relate to pedestrian and traffic flows.
Item number nine states, “The art that was installed at the Country Club Place roundabout is alarming to many. Why do we have such a prominent display of guns?”
At 11:35, Cortney Niland responded to Ramsey and asked her if her association’s executive committee could meet next week. Niland copied various city officials, including Tommy Gonzalez.
At 12:02, Tommy Gonzalez sent Tracey Jerome an email asking her to “find out how this art piece included guns.” Gonzalez added that he “has folks who remember it was supposed to be birds.” Jerome is the Director of Museum and Cultural Center for the City of El Paso.
Clearly, Gonzalez is getting other information that is not part of the emails in the open records requests. More importantly, the original contract to Margarita Cabrera was given to her in 2012. Gonzalez was appointed the city manager in 2014.
At 12:23, Tracey Jerome responded that the “artist has deviated from the approved design of the project.” Jerome added that her team had been unable to reach Margarita Cabrera, the artist. Jerome also wrote that Cabrera had been told “to cease any further installation on the work” until they resolved the issues with the piece.
The record is clear, the email letting the artist know there are concerns about the gun fragments was sent the same day that all of this was transpiring. As a matter of fact, the email was sent to Cabrera at 1:34 by Patricia Dalbin. This was after Jerome had already written to Gonzalez that the artist had been ordered to stop work.
It is also important to note that the guns are at issue, however the artist has provided documentation showing that the artwork, including the guns, had been approved by city staff. Regardless, whether the issue was guns or not is immaterial because if there was a deficiency it could be cured after a public and transparent process had been held. As you will see, it was not.
At 12:27 Gonzalez follows with another email in which he writes, “I do hope we haven’t made payment.” As you can see, Tommy Gonzalez is working from incomplete information, because a significant amount of the contract had already been paid to the artist.
Nevertheless a few minutes before his previous email, at 12:25, Tommy Gonzalez had already sent an email to Tracey Jerome telling her to;
“Have it removed asap please.”
At 12:53, Tracey Jerome responded, “We are working on this now.”
The email advising the artist of “issues” with the artwork was not sent until after these emails were exchanged.
The artwork was removed that same day, as well.
Anyone that has ever worked for, or done any work for any government entity clearly understands that government works at a pace many of us find objectionably slow and cumbersome. Look no further than the debacle of the San Jacinto Plaza to clearly understand this. How is it that a group of residents complain about a public artwork and the city has it removed the same day?
As disturbing as the timeline is, the emails show even more disturbing examples of how the city operates in the shadows. They clearly show how the city leverages its considerable powers through the legal system and through the news media in order to hide incompetence, abuse of power and/or allowing certain members of the population authority to dictate public policy.
For years I have been writing about how certain government actors work behind closed doors or through manipulation to implement the public policy of special interests. This issue, the censoring of the public artwork is a primer on how the city does this.
In a future article I am going to articulate for you each example these emails prove of how the city government manipulates public discussion, impedes public discussion through legal subterfuge, and I will even show you how the city uses the fear of economic retribution to stifle public discussion about public policy issues in order to protect a certain segment of the population.
I believe I have showed you how public artwork was censored by Tommy Gonzalez at the behest of certain individuals. Later I am going to show you, through the emails, how favored members of the community are driving public policy while the rest are marginalized into submission, with no say in the future of their community.