Former Santa Fe parks and recreation Director John Muñoz is accusing Mayor Alan Webber of “scapegoating” city employees when it comes to the makeshift storage site of a city-owned statue of Don Diego de Vargas.
The mayor said in statements issued last week he was surprised to learn the statue — removed from downtown Cathedral Park for safekeeping in June ahead of a planned protest — was standing in the backyard of a contract worker’s home and business.
Webber said he had believed the artwork was in a security city facility and had been misled by an unnamed “former department head.”
Muñoz, who resigned earlier this month to take a job in Las Cruces, said in an interview Monday the mayor was well aware of storage plans for the statue after workers pulled it from its base at the park.
“My team didn’t act by itself,” Muñoz said. “I did not act by myself. We had direction, and we took the directions and communicated clearly that the vendor would take the statue and store it.”
Muñoz said he did not imply in any communication with other city officials that the statue would be stored at a city facility.
It’s unclear if Webber was referring to Muñoz when he said he had been misled. When asked to name the department director who provided incorrect information, a spokesman for Webber wrote in a statement the city was not going to “play the blame game.”
“The city is moving forward,” Dave Herndon wrote.
Herndon did not directly answer a question about whether Muñoz’s version of the events was true. Instead, he reiterated the mayor had been misinformed on the statue’s whereabouts.
“If we’d known that it wasn’t in the City’s safekeeping, we would have acted immediately,” Herndon wrote. “Now that we know, we are planning to move it, in consultation with interested parties.”
Ron Trujillo, president of the nonprofit Caballeros de Vargas, a local religious and cultural organization that donated the sculpture to the city more than a decade ago and opposed its removal in June, said last week he discovered it was being held in the backyard of the contracted crane operator who had taken it from the park.
Muñoz wrote in an emailed statement late last week the plan was to store the statue at that location until an “immediate” decision could be made on whether it would be put in a museum, returned to Cathedral Park or removed from public eyes indefinitely.
“This was our understanding from the Mayor and this was the same information relayed to the vendor who professionally and very carefully removed and housed the statue,” Muñoz wrote.
The de Vargas statue, installed in 2007 at Cathedral Park, depicts a conquistador long decried by some as a symbol of violent colonization while lauded by others as a figure of Hispanic pride who reclaimed Santa Fe a dozen years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced the Spanish to flee the area.
Webber had a two-hour meeting last week with City Councilor Chris Rivera and Trujillo to begin planning for the city to retrieve the artwork. He later issued a statement saying the statue was “safe” but was not in the city’s hands.
Muñoz said Webber and City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill, whose name was included in one of Webber’s statements saying they both had been misled, were “gaslighting” the community “on both sides of this issue.”
“After 10 months, is it plausible to think that City employees acted alone in a rogue manner and took it upon themselves to cover-up this information?” Muñoz wrote.
“The Mayor and City Manager were fully aware. This is basic follow-through, leadership, and accountability.”