Odessa City Council members continued to debate the merits of adding a new at-large council member and giving the mayor a vote but focused their concerns Tuesday 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.
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. Gonzales said he wants to keep debating the proposed changes at City Council meetings.
If the petition drive succeeds and voters approve the proposed changes, the council would become a seven-member voting 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 that 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 it’s 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.”
The council trio that refused last month to call a special election 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.
Lingering discontent was evident Tuesday.
Dustin Fawcett, a 27-year-old Odessan, like Rector, challenged previous comments by council members critical of east side development, saying he was “bewildered and disappointed by the leadership of our community or lack thereof.”
“Do you honestly feel like constituents of your district care what cardinal direction their job and livelihood is located (in)?” said Fawcett, a staffer for State Rep. Brooks Landgraf who said he was offering personal views and not those of his boss.
IN OTHER BUSINESS, THE CITY COUNCIL:
>> Approved accepting a more than $95,000 grant from the state for rifle-resistant body armor.
>> Approved a more than $497,000 worth of vehicle replacements for city departments.
>> Opened a public hearing and approved for the first time a zoning request by Betenbough Homes for more than 165 acres northwest of the intersection of 87th Street and East Loop 338, made for the purpose of developing residential and retail development.
>> Opened a public hearing and approved for the second and final time a request by 2012 Cross B, LLC to rezone three drill sites totaling more than 6 acres from Future Development-Drill Reservation to Special Dwelling District and a request from PBar Parks Bell Ranch LTD to rezone one existing drill site to Future Development-Drill Reservation to Special Dwelling, totaling more than 8 acres north and east of the Cross B Road and Kate Reed Drive intersection.
>> Opened a public hearing and approved for the second and final time a request by Verna Schulte Headlee for retail zoning of a 2 acre tract of land southwest of the intersection of Loop 338 and East 56th Street.
>> Opened a public hearing and approved for the second and final time a request by Russell D. Subia to rezone from Single Family-Three to Retail near the intersection of Linda Avenue and West 22nd Street.
>> Approved an interlocal agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation for truck route signs on Loop 338.
>> Approved a more than $168,000 contract with GEXA Energy Solutions for an audit to determine needs of the mechanical systems, including the HVAC system, at the police department, Municipal Court and Municipal Plaza.
>> Discussed in a pre-meeting briefing session the City Council agenda, the University Boulevard widening project and the use of a consent agenda.
>> Approved Colorado River Municipal Water District secondary delivery point agreements.
>> Approved a more than $340,000 purchase of an ambulance, replacing a vehicle that will be auctioned.
>> Approved a more than $86,000 purchase of a street crack shooting rig.