To Casey Hallmark, it seemed like a dream job. In early 2022, the 37-year-old native Odessan was named the executive director of Downtown Odessa, a government-funded nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the city’s historic center. Hallmark, who had previously served on the boards of several other local nonprofits, couldn’t wait to get to work. Shortly after being hired by Odessa city manager Michael Marrero, she addressed a meeting of businesspeople, politicians, and other civic leaders. “We live in the greatest city ever,” she said, “and my job is to help everybody else fall in love with it as much as I have.”
But Hallmark believes her centrist politics—in an interview with Texas Monthly, she described herself as “fiscally Republican and socially Democratic”—soon made her the target of an insurgent faction of right-wing city council members led by Mayor Javier Joven. The 57-year-old owner of a local construction and roofing company, Joven was elected to the unsalaried position in 2020 on a pledge to reduce the municipal debt, rebuild infrastructure, and declare the West Texas city of 115,000 residents a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” No sooner had Hallmark moved into her new office than Joven began dropping by for unannounced visits, during which she said the mayor would sometimes rant for hours about the corruption he saw in city government. “I was told he didn’t want to hire me because I was a ‘crazy liberal,’ ” Hallmark said. “He would only call me by my married name [Williams], because he said that it’s ungodly for a married woman to not use her husband’s name.”
Before one city council meeting, Joven told Hallmark he’d be glad to accept her resignation. He did not elaborate on the statement, which Hallmark said she ignored. Under Odessa’s “weak mayor” form of government, only city manager Marrero could fire her. Hallmark said she felt threatened during a subsequent office visit. “He told me to watch my back, because the Odessa Police Department was ‘full of murderers,’ ” Hallmark said. She reported Joven’s behavior to Marrero, she said, but did not file a formal complaint because she wanted to keep her job. (Joven did not agree to an interview for this story; in an email, however, he denied each of Hallmark’s accusations. Marrero did not respond to interview requests. Odessa has hired an outside lawyer to investigate Hallmark’s accusations.)
At the time he allegedly requested her resignation, there was little that Joven could do to remove Hallmark. But in November, Odessa elected two more right-wing council members, Texas STAAR test administrator Greg Connell and auto-dealership employee Chris Hanie, giving the Joven coalition a five-to-two majority. (The voters had little choice, since both Connell and Hanie ran unopposed.) One of the new majority’s first actions was to fire Marrero and city attorney Natasha Brooks, two of the highest-ranking city employees. At the time, the council provided no reason for the terminations. More than a month later, city council member Denise Swanner, a court administrator and Joven ally who was elected in 2020, filed a formal complaint with the state bar accusing Brooks of backdating several official forms during her time as city attorney. (Brooks did not respond to interview requests.)
The defenestration of Brooks and Marrero, who were widely seen as a buffer between Odessa’s nonpartisan civil servants and its increasingly politicized city council, triggered an exodus from city hall. The past three months have seen the resignations or retirements of at least eighteen employees, including the assistant city manager, the fire chief, and three of the five staff attorneys in the city attorney’s office. “We had been hearing for several months that once [the Joven faction] got the majority that there was going to be a purge,” recalled one senior city employee who recently resigned. (The former employee asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation from Odessa elected officials.) “There were a lot of questions being asked about employees’ party politics, and where you landed on certain issues like the sanctuary city bill,” the former employee said. Hallmark submitted her own resignation letter in January, after what she said was more than a year of bullying and harassment from Joven and his allies. “The treatment I have received from our elected officials has made it impossible to continue in this role,” she wrote.
Critics see the terminations of Brooks and Marrero as the first steps in an effort by the Joven coalition to rid Odessa city government of employees considered insufficiently conservative. “My impression is that [Marrero and Brooks] were not deemed team players,” said Hannah Horick, the chair of the Ector County Democratic Party. “These are civil servants who have worked in Odessa for decades, and were not on board with the majority’s partisan agenda.” SMU political scientist Cal Jillson told me that there is often conflict in weak-mayor cities like Odessa between the city manager and the city council. “City managers have a professional ethos of nonpartisanship,” he said. “They’re trained for that. And often they’ll have a sort of obstreperous council that might be divided along partisan lines. The manager has strength as long as they can maintain majority support on the council.”
Council member Steven Thompson, a retired small-business owner and self-described Republican who voted to keep Marrero and Brooks, said that the wave of firings and resignations has thrown municipal government into chaos. “Those five council members have just destroyed the work environment in city hall,” Thompson told me. “Things are really, really ugly. They’re running around destroying morale at city hall and all across the city.”
In Odessa, as in many other Texas cities, elections for municipal positions such as mayor and city council member are nonpartisan; candidates do not run as Republicans or Democrats. In recent years, though, Odessa politics have become increasingly divisive and ideological, mirroring national trends. Joven and his allies say they are simply representing the values of their conservative constituents. Ector County is overwhelmingly red; Donald Trump won about 73 percent of its 44,591 votes cast in the 2020 presidential election. “We were elected, and the citizens wanted change,” said council member Swanner. Council member Mark Matta, an account manager at an oil and gas supply company who was elected in 2020, also voted to fire Brooks and Marrero. “We weren’t getting anywhere with [Marrero], so we just had to make the decision that we thought was best for the city of Odessa,” he told me. Matta declined to go into greater detail, citing unspecified “pending litigation.”
Several current and former Odessa City Council members told me that while the city is certainly conservative, Joven’s faction, which aligns itself with the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, has introduced a new atmosphere of extreme partisanship, distracting the council from its traditional emphasis on infrastructure and business development. At its first meeting, in November, the newly reconstituted city council voted to declare Odessa a sanctuary city for the unborn, joining more than forty other Texas cities that have outlawed abortion. Odessa’s ordinance is even more restrictive than the state’s abortion ban, providing exceptions only for ectopic pregnancies.
Thompson was alone in voting against the ordinance, arguing that reproductive rights were beyond the scope of the city council. “Why do we need to get involved?” he asked me. “Let’s go build a sports complex. Let’s pave roads.” Since November, though, those typical functions of city government seem to have taken a back seat to Team Joven’s ideological agenda. “It’s very difficult to entice new businesses to come into a city where the local government is so nonfunctional,” said Gene Collins, who served from 2016 to 2020 on the board of the Odessa Development Corporation, which provides financial incentives to spur economic activity. “City employees that we’ve had for a long time have resigned. Others are unsure of their future. Nothing is really getting done in the city.”
The actions of the Joven coalition have sparked an angry backlash from many Odessans, turning the city council’s formerly staid fortnightly meetings into dramatic confrontations. On the evening of December 13, residents packed into city hall to watch the council vote on the terminations of Marrero and Brooks. Joven sat in the middle of a semicircular dais, flanked by the six council members, Marrero, Brooks, and the city secretary. An uproar broke out when it became clear that the council would not allow public comment before voting on the terminations.
“Mr. Mayor, you’re not going to hear the comments?” asked Gaven Norris, a pugnacious local attorney who was sitting in the audience.
“Let us get through this process, sir,” Joven responded, before calling for a vote on Marrero’s dismissal.
“Mr. Mayor, I turned in a comment card,” interjected Collins, the former Odessa Development Corporation board member, who was also in the audience.
“Yes sir,” Joven said, “and you will be recognized. Please let us get through the process and then we will hear citizen comments.”
A heated argument broke out among Norris, Collins, and Joven, during which Joven banged his gavel and threatened to remove the two men from the room. Over repeated interruptions, Joven guided the council through a series of votes to fire Marrero and Brooks and appoint an interim city manager and city attorney. Only after the new appointees had replaced their predecessors on the dais did Joven recognize Norris. The attorney strode to a lectern at the front of the room and fixed his glare on Joven.
“I think it’s very clear that you don’t give a damn what the citizens think,” Norris thundered. “We don’t give a damn about party politics! We don’t care about your affiliations with the Republican Party! The citizens want you to do what we’ve asked you to do, which is govern.” Norris then announced that he would be suing the council for violating the Texas Government Code, which requires governmental bodies to give the public a chance to comment before taking official action. The audience erupted with applause.
Norris filed the lawsuit on December 22. On January 3, district court judge John Shrode, an appointee of Governor Greg Abbott, issued a temporary restraining order allowing Marrero and Brooks to keep their jobs—only to rescind the order the following day, without explanation. On January 9, the city council reconvened for a special session, at which it once again voted to terminate Marrero and Brooks. This time the public was allowed to speak beforehand, but it didn’t matter. Marrero and Brooks were out.
“The mayor totally disregarded the city council rules that we’ve had for the past twentysomething years by not allowing citizens to talk,” Norris told me in late January at his downtown Odessa law office. “Their admission of guilt was calling a special council meeting to redo the firings, and then putting citizen comments at the very top of the agenda. If they didn’t believe they had done anything wrong, they would never have called a special meeting.”
The only other council member to join Thompson in voting against firing Marrero and Brooks was Gilbert Vasquez, a retired public school administrator and self-described Democrat who was elected in November, like Connell and Hanie, in an uncontested race. “I had not been on the council long enough to evaluate their job performance and get to know their responsibilities,” Vasquez told me over breakfast at Barrel & Derrick, a swish restaurant inside the downtown Marriott. “Yet the other two [new council members] were all ready to vote in favor. So that tells me that there had to be some kind of prior discussion among themselves.” The only two right-wing council members who spoke to Texas Monthly, Swanner and Matta, denied discussing council business in private, which is illegal under Texas law.
Tisha Crow, the longtime chair of the Ector County Republican Party, is widely considered the mastermind behind the right-wing takeover of the Odessa City Council. Under Crow, the party has become one of the most ideologically extreme in the state; it was the first county party to formally censure Governor Abbott over his July 2020 executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in most public places. When I met Crow at the modest office of the insurance agency she runs with her husband, Kris, another local Republican power broker, she denied having outsized influence over the council, saying she had simply endorsed candidates who share her “core beliefs.” Crow made no secret of her desire to dismantle the good-old-boy network that she believes runs Odessa. “We have had a group of people who not only sit on the [city council] dais but are behind the scenes as well, receiving contracts,” she said. “What I’m looking for [in a council member] is someone who doesn’t want to continue to award contracts and bids to the same people.”
Another key figure behind the right-wing takeover is Ector County GOP treasurer Jeff Russell, who runs an Odessa carpet and flooring store. Russell dismissed the city’s traditional power elite as “country club Republicans.” He said, “I think there are a lot of old Democrats who, when they figured out you can’t run in Ector County on a Democratic ticket and get elected, they suddenly said, ‘I’m really Republican.’ ” Russell runs the influential website and Facebook page Odessa Headlines, which pushes out a steady stream of right-wing, antiestablishment news stories. “There were a lot of things done over the years that benefited a small group of influential, wealthy people in the community,” Russell told me. “We’ve got to figure out how to root out some of the bad practices that have gone on for years and years.”
In 2020, the city council spent $80,000 of hotel occupancy tax revenue to place two Christmas trees outside the downtown Marriott and convention center. The county GOP blasted this as wasteful spending, even though state law requires that occupancy-tax money be used to promote tourism, convention centers, or the arts. Tisha Crow and council member Swanner have also slammed the city’s decades-long contract with an insurance brokerage company formerly owned by council member Thompson and now run by Thompson’s son. Although Thompson has abstained from voting on matters related to his son’s business during his two years on the council, the apparent conflict of interest has provided fodder for Odessa Headlines and other right-wing media. (Thompson denies any impropriety.)
Many Odessa political observers agree with Crow and Russell that an entrenched elite—a business-minded group of moderate Republicans and Democrats—has long dominated city government. But they say this group was driven less by ideology or self-interest than genuine civic-mindedness. “In the old days we had a gentleman named Bill Elms, who was a CPA, and everything went through Bill,” recalled council member Thompson. “If you wanted to run for an office, you had to visit with Bill. But it didn’t matter who you were, Republican or Democrat, because everything was supposed to be nonpartisan. [The Joven coalition] keeps saying it’s the same people just going around in circles, which is probably true. But they’re qualified by experience. They’re businesspeople. And Odessa’s not that big of a city.” (Elms, who served on the boards of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce, the Odessa College Foundation, and numerous other local organizations, died in 2012 at the age of 77.)
The insurgent council members campaigned on restoring financial discipline and eliminating the kind of favoritism described by Thompson. But during their first three months in power, members of the Joven faction have engaged in some of the same tactics for which they condemned the old power brokers. They have placed Crow, the GOP chair, on the board of Downtown Odessa, and Russell, the GOP treasurer, on the board of the Odessa Development Corporation, where he joined Kris Crow. “It seems like it’s a power grab,” said the senior city employee who recently resigned. “It’s just people being drunk with what they perceive to be unchecked power.”
The day after Marrero and Brooks were fired, Mayor Joven signed a one-year, $338,000 contract with T2 Professional Consulting, a company founded in 2021 by Michael D. Wilson, the former police chief of Keller, a Fort Worth suburb. The company lists its place of business as a four-bedroom house in Fort Worth. In an email to Texas Monthly, Wilson said he met Joven while manning a booth at the October conference of the Texas Municipal League. He described T2 as a “collaboration of government and corporate experts” that has worked with “over 100 private and public organizations across the United States.” When I asked how many employees the company had, Wilson would only say that T2 “builds personalized teams for each client and project.”
Texas law requires that cities bid out all contracts worth at least $50,000, with an exception for “personal, professional, or planning services.” To justify the no-bid T2 contract, interim city attorney Dan Jones, whom the council appointed to replace Brooks, cited a 1992 Texas attorney general opinion that “a municipality has discretion in the first instance to determine whether particular services . . . are professional services for purposes of exemption from competitive bidding requirements.”
The contract calls for T2 to advise the interim city manager, provide organizational analysis, help guide public relations, and provide leadership training to city staff, along with other tasks. Norris believes that Joven hired the firm to help him carry out a purge of city employees. “They’re taking revenge on city employees that they have grievances with, such as Natasha Brooks and Michael Marrero,” he told me. For his part, council member Vasquez found the timing of the T2 contract suspicious. “We terminate our city manager and city attorney, and the next day there’s already a contract in place,” he pointed out. “How can that have happened overnight?”
When I visited Odessa in January, the next city employee in the Joven faction’s crosshairs appeared to be Carlos Rodriguez, who has served as the city’s presiding municipal judge, a council-appointed position, for nearly three years. The agenda for the January 24 city council meeting included a private executive session to discuss the judge’s dismissal. As with Marrero and Brooks, no rationale for Rodriguez’s proposed termination was ever supplied by the council.
Supporters of Rodriguez congregated on the left side of the chamber, with a slightly smaller group of Joven allies on the right. Many in the audience appeared to have come to the 6 p.m. meeting directly from their jobs, a few wearing rumpled suits, the rest in work boots and jeans. Unlike in December, members of the audience were allowed to address the council before they voted on Rodriguez’s termination. One by one, a parade of local attorneys came to the lectern to praise the judge’s character and professional competence. They speculated that Joven wanted to fire Rodriguez because the judge had reportedly taken offense to a letter Joven wrote in 2022 encouraging municipal judges to impose the maximum fine on minors in possession of alcohol and parents who provide alcohol to minors.
The only person to speak in favor of firing Rodriguez was Tisha Crow’s husband, Kris. A stocky man in a plaid flannel jacket and a baseball cap, Crow complained that Rodriguez had not held any jury trials since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. He suggested that the attorneys who had spoken in support of Rodriguez were hoping to receive favorable treatment from the judge in future cases. In the end, the council decided not to fire Rodriguez, an apparent concession to the public’s anger. The judge’s job was safe—for now.
The Joven faction’s long-term goals remain unclear. The right-wing council members told me they intend to curb spending by eliminating some staff positions and fighting corruption. In the past, the local GOP, which supports private school vouchers, has endorsed candidates for the school board as well as the hospital board.
Tim Edgmon, whom Joven ally Chris Hanie removed from his board position on the Odessa Development Corporation in November, recently told the Odessa American that the local Republican Party was conducting a silent coup. “They want control of everything,” he said. Swanner and Matta, the only two right-wing council members who agreed to speak with me, denounced the American’s coverage of the city council.
I asked Swanner what her top priority was on the city council. “Well, you know, if you had any control over the public and the media, [my priority] would be to control them in some form,” she told me. “But that’s never going to happen.” Swanner told me that the faction’s opponents were making too much of the recent resignations.
“Does it concern you that the city attorney’s office is down to two attorneys?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” she replied. “We’re getting more accomplished with fewer attorneys now than when we were fully staffed. So that doesn’t concern me at all.”
Like Swanner, council member Matta dismissed the significance of the departures. “Out of about eight hundred city employees, we’ve had seventeen leave,” he told me during a phone call on January 27. “That’s not the definition of a mass exodus.”
Hallmark resigned three days later, bringing that number to eighteen. In December, she had gone public with her accusations against the mayor during a dramatic appearance before the city council. “You told me I need to quote unquote watch my back,” she said, looking directly at Joven. “Do you remember telling me that the OPD [Odessa Police Department] is full of murderers?”
A few weeks later, Hallmark returned to the lectern to accuse council member Hanie of cursing at her before the annual Christmas parade, which is organized by Downtown Odessa. Hanie had apparently become enraged at a parade banner that referred to him as “Councilperson Hanie.” “I am not a f—ing councilperson,” Hanie allegedly screamed at Hallmark. “I am a councilman, and I will be referred to as such.” In the meeting, Hanie acknowledged asking Hallmark to address him as “councilman” but denied screaming or using the f-word. “I’m a very Christian man,” he explained. (Hanie did not respond to an interview request.) According to emails obtained by the Odessa American, council member Swanner also objected to the parade banners, demanding that they read “council member or councilwoman.”
By all accounts, Hallmark had been successful in her position. Under her leadership, Downtown Odessa turned a profit after averaging a loss over the previous five years. The events she organized set new attendance records. “I’ve never met someone so organized,” said Downtown Odessa board chairman John Herriage at a board meeting in early January. “I mean, she has got like a color-coordinated index for everything, so everybody knows their job. They know what to do. She’s busted her ass.”
Critics of the Joven faction are discussing ways to fight back. Collins, the former Odessa Development Corporation board member, is planning to launch recall campaigns against some or all of the Joven-affiliated council members. “They are promoting this narrative that people in downtown government are working against the common good of the people,” he said. “And that just isn’t true.”
This story originally published online on February 21, 2023. An abbreviated version of it appeared in the April 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Exodus in Odessa.” Subscribe today.