The following article written by Mark Pumphrey, originally ran in El Paso Porkfest on Facebook. Before his retirement, Pumphrey was Director of Libraries for the City of El Paso. The article has been edited for length. Posted with permission of the author .
- El Paso News Team
The new Mexican American Cultural Center will be constructed soon, once “upgrades” to the old 1950s-era original part of the Main Library—you know, the old part that still has all of the undisturbed asbestos lurking in the walls—are completed.
The “upgrades” won’t take long. According to Tracey Jerome, now Deputy City Manager of Quality of Life, the “upgrades” to the old part of the Main Library building will make the Main Library better than ever!
Half of the old part of the Main Library–the two below-ground lower levels–are affectionately called “The Dungeon,” by many. Yet, this old part of the building is where all existing Main Library programs and services will now be stuffed and squeezed. Windows? Who needs them?
Why is this happening? Because, instead of choosing one of the big, cavernous museums in her own City Department, MCAD, that are overseen by her, as the location for the new Mexican American Cultural Center, an MCAD project, Jerome, in her wisdom decided to grab 40% of the Main Library building—all of the newer part—as the location, with the blessing of Senior Deputy City Manager Cary Westin, Deputy City Manager Dionne Mack and City Manager Tommy Gonzalez—as I like to call it the “Tracey Jerome Mexican-American Cultural Center.” According to Jerome, Mack had floated this idea as early as 2015. But nobody told me—I was just Mack’s Assistant Director of Libraries, after all.
A week or so before I was appointed by Westin and Gonzalez as the City’s permanent Director of Libraries in 2018, Jerome requested a tour of the Main Library under the pretext that she was looking for a space for a joint County/City project to collect and preserve important archives. We had an available space at the Main Library, and I was excited about the prospect of the joint project.
Toward the end of the tour of the Main Library, I mentioned that I’d heard a question from Bernie Sargent at the last 2012 Quality of Life Bond Oversight Advisory Committee [BOAC] meeting (now there’s a frustrated group for you) that the Main Library was one of four downtown locations on a short list of possible places to locate the new Mexican American Cultural Center. Jerome acknowledged at the BOAC meeting that there was a list, but that no decision had been made.
So, during the tour of the Main Library I asked Jerome to please tell me that if the Library had been selected as the location for the MACC? I also asked her if she’d make sure that none of the existing library programs at Main Library would be harmed or diminished in any way. At that point Jerome flew into a rage, loudly asking me why I would imply such a thing, asking why I would think that she would ever do that and telling me that no decision as to location had been made.
A week later, I was in Tommy Gonzalez’s Office with Cary Westin, for final approval by Gonzalez, before I was to be appointed as the permanent Library Director (a strange meeting indeed, fueled by shows of ego and testosterone by Gonzalez). Toward the end of the meeting, Gonzalez asked me if I’d seen a copy of the drawings. He then pulled out a complete set of preliminary drawings of the new MACC to be built within all of the 40,000 square feet addition to the Main Library that was constructed in 2006. Note to self: don’t ever trust anything Tracey Jerome says to you, ever again. The truth was, as I learned in a subsequent meeting with Jerome and her Assistant Director Ben Fyffe, that the two of them had been meeting for months with an architect to sketch out the preliminary drawings, including the redesign of Library spaces within the building—without the involvement of the Interim Director of Libraries (that would be me). This is the same 40% of the Main Library building that was added in 2006 after the people of El Paso voted (in the year 2000) in favor of a Library-specific bond proposal intended to resolve longtime, severe space problems in the original Main Library building that was built in the 1950s.
The claim by Jerome and Assistant Director at MCAD, Ben Fyffe at public meetings that the 40,000-square-foot addition to the Main Library was underutilized (that would be the City’s museums) is blatantly false. Also, the majority of the forty or so public meetings Jerome and Fyffe claimed to have had about the MACC project were with regard to the site around the perimeter of the Abraham Chavez Theatre/Convention Hall, a location many El Pasoans still support, including a number of MACI [Mexican American Cultural Institute] members (the group who advocated long and hard for the building of a free-standing MACC and whose hands were tied on delivering promised fundraising because the City adamantly refused to give them a signed Memorandum of Agreement [MOU] needed before they could begin their fundraising for the MACC). There were no prior public meetings before the last one that mentioned just days before the Council vote, that the Main Library was the chosen location.
One week prior to the last public meeting on the MACC project, a news release went out to the public announcing that the last public meeting was to be held at the History Museum (in the smallest room they could find) and held on a Thursday night, just prior to the Tuesday morning City Council meeting at which City Council would vote to approve the MACC location. In the news release that went out, THERE WAS NO MENTION OF THE FACT THAT THE CHOSEN LOCATION WOULD BE THE MAIN LIBRARY. Fortunately, both MACI members and community librarians and Friends of the Library members got wind of the effort to sidestep mention of the chosen location in the news release (hoping for the typical dismal turnout at public meetings?) and showed up in force, the MACI group with a bullhorn. Cary Westin complained about the “disgraceful” behavior of both groups at the City Council meeting on the following Tuesday. Whose behavior was disgraceful here? I was attending training in Detroit from Friday afternoon through Tuesday of that same week, as one of five City of El Paso employees working on a project to expend Citi corporate funds for job growth and workforce development in El Paso. I was also ill on the night of the public meeting but attended anyway because I knew the public meeting was that important.
I had to sit down while the disruption of the event was going on. I was later accused by the City of not being in the room at all, when in fact I was in the room the entire time the protest was going on, while Jerome and Fyffe were out in the hallway doing their coverup thing with the local media. At the Detroit Airport on Tuesday afternoon, I received an ominous email message from Cary Westin telling me to be in his office at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. At the meeting, he and Laura Cruz-Acosta (in charge of City Public Relations) accused me of being negative about the MACC project, of not getting on the phone immediately following the protest to persuade Library staff and supporters of what a great idea the MACC project was, and of prompting both the American Library Association and the Texas Library Association to write letters to the Mayor of El Paso stating what a bad decision it was to take a portion of the Main Library building to create the Mexican American Cultural Center (I think that may have been Carol Brey who contacted ALA and TLA. A past ALA President, Carol has connections, and was working with local librarians and Friends of the Library members who were upset about what was happening on how to advocate for the Library, I learned later). Good for her if it was Carol who alerted ALA and TLA. Well done, Carol!
Regardless, I was forced to sign a letter to the editor of the El Paso Times expressing my support for the MACC at Main Library project that Cruz-Acosta had written, and a similar letter to the Texas Library Association, under threat of being fired from my job if I didn’t.
At the end of the meeting, Westin ominously referred to forthcoming disciplinary action that he’d have to think about. Rather than risk the loss of certain benefits if I was fired, I decided to submit a letter of resignation, which I did by the end of the day. Over the weekend, Westin had calmed down and was conciliatory. I therefore retracted my resignation letter on the following Monday. I now regret having signed the two letters I didn’t write in the first place.
To sum it all up, the City needed a scapegoat after Tommy Gonzalez came storming out of his office with the letter from the Texas Library Association saying, “Find out who was behind this!”, and they found one—in me. At the first meeting between Westin, Gonzalez, Jerome and me about the MACC project, Westin became furious when I said that, even if Mack had known since 2015, it was all news to me. He became so irate that Gonzalez took him outside of the room for a full thirty minutes. When they returned, Westin had calmed down. Gonzalez’s sage advice to me at that meeting was to not let strangers into my house—using Dallas (?) as an example. Don’t ask me—it was a bizarre comment then and it is still a bizarre comment now.
Part Two and a Footnote:
The newer part of the Main Library building that is being taken away from the Library in order to provide space for the MACC was all much-needed and much-used space for library programs, services, special events, meetings and programs in the Main Library Auditorium and study/casual seating. This vital space at the Main Library, once converted into a Mexican-American Cultural Center, will serve neither the City’s library users well; nor adequately serve as a cultural center highlighting the City’s wonderful Mexican-American cultural heritage of which we can all be proud, like those in other Texas cities that were designed properly.
The building renovation plan is essentially based on Tracey Jerome’s personal dream wish list for things she’d like to add as an extension of the City’s big, empty museum spaces, and her own over-sized ego, with none of the items on the dream wish list having much of anything to do directly with Mexican-American culture.
The Mexican American Cultural Center project is a “done on the cheap” shortcut the City is building because it over-budgeted Jerome’s Children’s Museum ($60 million) and now is over-budgeting for the Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Facility, approved by voters as just that and only that, because it is now being turned into a Sports Arena (cost estimates range up to $400 million depending on who you ask) by Tommy Gonzalez and his crew in the City Manager’s Office, in obeisance and servitude to Tommy’s rich masters in El Paso.
Start by looking at the roster of board members for Franklin Mountain Capital on their website to know who I’m referring to (BTW, anyone know why such a prestigious group that lists the likes of Francis Aviation, Jordan Foster Construction—the company that won the construction project at Main Library after Tommy Gonzalez threw out the entire first round of bids over the strong recommendation of the first review committee to select Carl Daniels as the clear winner of the bid—and Western Refinery among its affiliates is also affiliated with Happy Tails, a pet store/pet products maker? How odd. When I tried to link from the Franklin Mountain Capital website to Happy Tails, I received a warning not to go there, because whatever is at the other end of the link might be an imposter posing as Happy Tails. Hmmm.)
Background on my Departure from the City of El Paso:
I am Mark Pumphrey and I served as Director of Libraries for the City of El Paso, reporting directly (along with other Department Heads assigned to his portfolio) to Deputy City Manager for Economic Development and Tourism Cary Westin, who sits in the City Manager’s Office. I had received nothing but positive feedback from Westin, when suddenly, in early 2019, I was informed by Westin by phone and without explanation, moments before an official City news release went out to announce the change, that effective immediately, I was being put under the supervision of Tracey Jerome, another Department Head just like me, who was at that time the Director of the Museums and Cultural Affairs Department. (Jerome has since been promoted to the City Manager’s Office, with the title of Deputy City Manager for Quality of Life, with oversight for several additional City departments, including Museums & Cultural Affairs, Libraries, the Zoo, Parks & Recreation, and contractual oversight of Tourism/Destination El Paso.) If you want to see a rapid-fire dictatorship develop in just a few years, take a look at the body count of former senior and middle management MCAD employees who have, since Jerome blew into town, either been forced out of their jobs or made so miserable by Jerome that they had no other choice but to leave. The number is staggering. Jerome’s husband is David Jerome, the Executive Director of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, which must be a very important connection for the City Manager’s Office to massage, since his wife gets whatever she wants at the City of El Paso.
Less than two months after this phone call from Westin, a period in which Jerome dredged up every false accusation she could muster about my performance as the Director of Libraries, I was called back into Westin’s office and informed that I would be retiring from my position on my 66th birthday, August 6, 2019, again without explanation (I asked three times why, and received as his only answer “I’m not going to dialogue with you about that”). Jerome was also in the meeting. Westin also informed me that I would be using up the balance of my accrued annual vacation leave between May 10 and August 6, 2019. He even said the City would be preparing a news release announcing “my” decision to retire.
I had no intention of retiring on my 66th birthday. I had definite goals to build on considerable achievements, particularly in the areas of library-based adult educational programs, for which the City in part won an All-American City Award; and support of small businesses and entrepreneurs, resulting in El Paso being selected by the Living Cities organization to receive funds from the Citi corporation to support job growth and workforce development. Because of my initiative, the El Paso Public Library was the recipient of the 2018 Levi Strauss Legacy Award, which is awarded to one organization worldwide each year. My proposal was to use the award to add adult education materials and programs to the new Express Library being built in Chamizal, in the framework of an abandoned Levi Strauss factory. Little known fact: it was I who brought both the Library’s hugely successful Career Online High School Certificate program and GED testing at select libraries in the system to the attention of the then Director of Libraries, Dionne Mack, and it was I who implemented and oversaw these and many other programs like them at the Library.
I was an Assistant Library Director under Dionne Mack for six years, a Co-Interim Director of Libraries in 2016 after Mack was promoted to become a Deputy City Manager for Public Safety in the City Manager’s Office; appointed as the sole Interim Director of Libraries in 2017; and finally, I was appointed as the permanent Director of Libraries in 2018. As the permanent Library Director, I received praise from among the 160 Library Department employees for bringing back social gatherings at holidays for staff, such as the annual Christmas party; bringing back the annual Staff Development Day that had not been done since Carol Brey left the position of Director of Libraries in 2010; and for loosening, within reason, the very restrictive Library dress code for library staff, such as allowing staff who stood for long periods at the Circulation Desks to wear soft shoes that were more comfortable (as long as they were clean and neat).
The twelve Branch Library Managers liked that I brought Luis Herrera, an El Paso native and recently retired Director of the San Francisco Public Library, back to El Paso to provide for them his excellent management training workshop; and also the fact that, with assistance from selected Branch Managers, I was working systematically with the City Attorney’s Office to update some seriously dated Library Policies and Procedures; and with representatives from the City Planning Department, Community and Human Resources Department, Streets and Maintenance Department, Capital Improvements Department, and Library, was working on a plan for identifying areas in El Paso that had grown in population to the point where they were underserved by the existing Branch Libraries. Expansion of the Main Library Literacy Center included a Workforce Development Center; the housing of Workforce Solutions job counselors within the Literacy Center; and the opening of a County office that housed social workers to work specifically with rehabilitation of the City’s homeless populations through one-on-one counseling held at the Main Library Literacy Center.
The library community in El Paso appreciated that, unlike Dionne Mack, I participated fully in local Library professional organizations such as the Border Regional Library Association and REFORMA, a national organization with a chapter in El Paso that focuses on the development of improved library services and programs for Latino populations.
The literary community in El Paso appreciated that, working with author and Ysleta native Sergio Troncoso, I coordinated a conference for the first time in over 20 years to be held in El Paso, of the Texas Institute of Letters, attended by a wealth of the most distinguished Texas writers, some of whom generously gave of their time while in El Paso to provide programs at El Paso Public Library’s Branch Libraries. I also became an active member and supporter of the 20+ year old Tumblewords Writing Project founded by Donna Snyder, a group that has met at the Memorial Park Branch Library for many years.
For the Tom Lea Institute, founded by Adair Margo, I supported Tom Lea Month every year, with a highlight being when Ms. Margo invited me to join a group attending the 300th Anniversary of the Guadalupe Mission, at which I caused a stir of goodwill with our Sister City Juarez by returning a 355 year-old document that had originally belonged to the Mission, but had found its way to El Paso during the upheaval just days before the start of the Mexican Revolution, and was later donated by the researcher who had it in his possession to the El Paso Public Library.
But in the meeting with Jerome and Westin, none of this mattered.
I was accused of lowering staff morale since becoming the Director of Libraries. I knew that wasn’t true, and that the only real criticism I’d received from staff was from Main Library staff, who rightly could not understand why they had not been informed in advance about the imminent changes at the Main Library in 2019 to make way for the new Mexican American Cultural Center to be located in the Main Library building. The reason I did not inform Main Library staff of this change? Because I was strictly forbidden by Jerome to do so. And I didn’t. I was also accused of speaking (four times, apparently) negatively to others about the MACC at Main Library project. I never spoke negatively to others about the City’s plan to use the Main Library as the location of the MACC, because I knew I would be fired if I did, and I said so in the meeting with Jerome and Westin, but they did not believe me, citing my “poor leadership skills,” but not specifying anything to support this accusation.
The programs I’ve mentioned above are just a few examples of my accomplishments since moving to El Paso in 2010 from North Carolina after being hired by Carol Brey as an Assistant Director. I needed five more years to complete several long-term goals I’d envisioned, such as providing a co-work center for entrepreneurs who may not have the means to afford membership fees at one of the other co-work centers in El Paso. I got in trouble once again when in a meeting Jerome and Fyffe also attended with the Capital Improvement Department, I casually mentioned that in a Portfolio meeting Westin had held following the Portfolio was informed of the plan to locate the MACC at the Main Library, Westin had assured me that even though the co-work space would not now be located at Main Library, that he promised it would be located in a building somewhere in the City at some point in the future.
One day prior to being called in to be informed that I was being forced to retire, I was with Ben Fyffe in a meeting with Cissy Lizarraga, District 8 City Council Representative and some of her constituents, including Kathy Staudt, who were most concerned about the Library collection at Main Library being housed in the Dungeon. I assured Kathy that this would not happen. Now I’m not so sure.
I had planned to work until the age of 70 to accomplish this and other goals. But it was not to be, and I was summarily forced to resign from my position as Director of Libraries for the City of El Paso on my 66th birthday over my protests, without explanation or even a second thought by Jerome or Westin.
- Postscript: The City may have to make some decisions to keep it from going bankrupt.
On Monday, April 13 at 9:05am, there will be a Special City Council Virtual Meeting with six agenda items. Item 6 on the Agenda reads as follows:
“Discussion on renovating the Abraham Chavez Theater and/or the civic center with funds authorized by the ‘Museum, Cultural, Performing Arts, and Library Facilities’ ballot proposition of the 2012 Quality of Life bond election rather than building a new multipurpose performing arts and entertainment facility in the Union Plaza neighborhood.”