Odessa City Council members continued to debate the merits of adding a new at-large council member and giving the mayor a vote on Tuesday but focused their concerns on geographical representation on the board as a May special election on the changes appears increasingly likely.
Absent was much of the acrimony that marked a previous debate over the issue this month, where council members traded barbs with citizens who came to speak and complained about Odessa’s eastern growth. There was some contention — District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales at one point accused the chief proponent of the council changes, Jim Rector, of “misleading the whole community with your opinion.”
But Rector had argued just that the proposal was “the most effective way to give our citizens representation at this time,” even if the next census may bring further changes such as new single-member districts.
Three council members had combined in December to shoot down a request to call a special election — Gonzales, District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton and District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff. The trio had also faced criticism after a string of controversial decisions last year such as the sacking of the city manager and scuttling of an incentive package for an oilfield equipment supplier that ultimately went to Midland.
On Tuesday, Gonzales and Graff said they could support adding representatives to the City Council but favored the lengthier process of adding two new members representing single districts or simply waiting until the next census in 2020.
“I think the city has grown enough to merit that we need to make a change,” Gonzales said. But he continued to question the “intent” behind the latest proposal and maintained his stance that it would favor Odessa’s wealthier east side.
If the petition drive succeeds and voters sign off on the proposal, the council would become a seven-member board with a mayor and council member elected by voters citywide. The remaining five single-district positions would remain.
But passage of the proposal may also face federal scrutiny — something supporters argue it would withstand because it would not dilute minority voting strength.
A group formed to oppose the proposal, Odessa Together, which includes members of minority voting rights groups, argues the new seven-member board would illegally dilute the strength of Hispanic voters. The group also threatened to challenge the changes in court.
Gonzales lent his support to that group but said he disagreed with the argument about racial vote dilution.
Gonzales floated the idea of asking voters to consider adding two-single member districts, although its unclear how that would work if the petition drive succeeds because the City Council could not vote to alter that proposal if it’s taken to voters.
District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant said he disagreed.
“I oppose it because we have a petition out in the city today by the citizens that’s being signed there,” Bryant said. “And I’m for that.”
District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner also supports the proposed changes but was absent Tuesday.
One of the founders of Odessa Together, Art Leal, encouraged the City Council on Tuesday to seek a federal review of the new elections system before calling the election, which a successful petition would compel them to call under state law.
“This so-called bypass action that we all know as a petition has not taken away your ability to govern the city,” said Leal, a past chairman of Una Voz Unida, a group aimed at increasing Hispanic political participation that he founded after losing a mayoral race in 2008. “You each have a responsibility to the city to protect it from all liability and loss.”
Hamilton and Graff have argued the proposed changes would be discriminatory, with Hamilton calling them “racist.”
On Tuesday, Graff argued that single-member districts better represent distinct areas of the city and that an at-large representative is “not going to do a very good job of representing all five of those districts.”
“You need to know and understand your district,” Graff said. “You need to know what the people need. You can’t do that with at-large.”
Hamilton repeated previous arguments that the change is being sought by “spoiled individuals wanting to get their way or have their way. And now all of a sudden things are not being rubber stamped.”
“I think it’s wrong,” Hamilton said. “However, as Mr. Bryant has said: It’s a political process. So if they’ve signed this petition then the thing is, let’s get the voters out and let’s have them vote on this thing. I really do feel that. Regardless Odessa will move forward.”