The Ector County Elections Office this week is verifying petition signatures submitted Tuesday that will determine whether the City of Odessa must call for a city-wide vote on whether to pass a $95 million bond to rehabilitate the city’s current water plant.
Odessa’s City Council on Tuesday was scheduled to vote on whether to use certificates of obligation for the water plant project. COs require only a vote by council. Those plans were postponed, and will be scrapped if the petitions are validated by the county.
The issue has been a contentious battle with leadership of the Ector County GOP spearheading the petition calling for a public vote. Misleading social media posts and questions about how the petition was presented to voters to sign are at issue.
Several Odessa City Council members on Tuesday publicly blasted GOP Chairwoman Tisha Crow – accusing her of spearheading a petition drive they say was riddled with inaccurate information, hyperbole and unethical behavior.
“Hopefully, (the petition signatures) were legitimately obtained,” Councilwoman Mari Willis said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “I was asked to sign a petition by a teenager. When I asked him what it was for, they told me ‘It was to make sure our taxes don’t go higher and higher.’”
“When I said, well that’s actually not what it’s for, then he said, ‘well I’ve got it in Spanish.’ I said, if it’s incorrect in English, it’s incorrect in Spanish.”
Added Willis: “My point is … it’s important to me that the integrity of the action is held to the highest regard.”
Willis said she observed the same petitioner tell another person that the petition’s purpose was to keep jobs in Odessa.
“(The way petitions were collected) may not have been illegal, but it was unethical,” Willis said.
Councilman Steve Thompson told Crow that in recent weeks he had visited several local businesses where petitions were just laying around unattended. According to election rules, a petitioner is supposed to be present to witness the petitions being signed, Thompson added.
“I do believe this whole thing was done inappropriately,” Thompson said.
Crow disputed both council members’ allegations. She told Thompson it’s possible a petitioner had briefly walked away and was nearby.
“It was our understanding people would be present to watch people sign it,” she said.
Crow said some residents have questioned why the work on the water plant couldn’t be done by local companies. City administrators and water treatment facility experts have repeatedly said the work to be done needs specially-skilled workers who understand how a water treatment facility works – those people don’t exist locally.
“The bond is about keeping jobs here,” an undeterred Crow said. “It was an adequate comment. It was correct.”
This time it was Willis who interrupted: “No,” Willis said, shaking her head vigorously.
Crow also claimed that petitioners were correct when they told people that a bond issue could result in property taxes being increased to repay the bond.
Former City Councilwoman and CPA Peggy Dean rebutted Crow. Dean pointed out that the CO or bond would be repaid with water and sewer dollars. Raising and using property taxes to repay the bond would be a last, and unlikely resort because property taxes are already used to fund less than 75 percent of public safety (law enforcement and emergency services) in Odessa. She said there isn’t enough property tax to even fund 100 percent of emergency services.
Dean noted sales taxes could be used to repay debt if needed, but not property taxes. “It is not a fair statement that this would cause property taxes to go up. That’s not true.”
Crow and other bond supporters said they aren’t opposed to the water treatment project; they just don’t think COs should be used. They also said voters should determine the issue, not council.
City administrators have said the 60-year-old water treatment plant is in dire need of repairs and upgrading, and warn the system could fail at any time, potentially leaving thousands of Odessans without water.
The proposed rehabilitation project would include extensive upgrades to the current plant’s electrical and computer systems, chemical feed and filter systems and chemical storage facility, Public Works Director Tom Kerr has previously told council.
Mayor Javier Joven, who is also a member of the local GOP leadership, has repeatedly questioned city officials’ claims that the water treatment facility is in dire straits. Joven has said that the cost of an election would be about $100,000. Crow recently disputed Joven’s figure, stating she believes the cost would be much less.
When questioned by council, Crow admitted that the bond petition was conducted and paid for by her, and “another generous donor” who she did not name.
Crow on Tuesday also quarreled with Councilwoman Detra White who said many of her constituents were being told inaccurate information by petitioners. That set up a terse exchange between White and Crow.
“Y’all were giving out some very misleading information,” said White who told Crow she was embarrassed by the behavior of Crow and other local GOP board members. “I’ve been a Republican my entire life. But I wouldn’t join the Ector County Republican Board if my life depended on it. Ya’ll have done some horrible things.”
Responded Crow: “We wouldn’t have wanted you on our board. If you had run (for a board seat) we would have found a different candidate to beat you.”
Crow argued that it was not manipulation and that voters always deserve to vote on any debt issuance. The group did not come out against Ector County’s vote to issue $25 million in debt for the juvenile detention center.
Councilman Tom Sprawls challenged Crow to explain why petitioners were telling people the requested bond was for $130 million, instead of the stated $95 million. Other social media sites affiliated with the group floated numbers as high as $164 million.
Crow and fellow Republican Jeff Russell said people were told the bond was for $130 million because they were including interest to be paid.
Sprawls pointed out that Crow and Russell on Tuesday, and previously have claimed one reason they oppose the COs is because they don’t know what the interest rates would be.
Sprawls said: “It’s also dishonest.”
Crow also told council members she would likely vote for the bond but said now it is up to the council to get out and educate voters on why it is needed.
She and Russell were later corrected again by Dean who reminded council members that they are prohibited by law from publicly being for or against the bond. City officials may only hand out information on what the bond would fund and not urge voters to vote for or against.
Tuesday’s council meeting began in dramatic fashion.
Democratic Party Chair Hannah Horrick also blasted the petition drive and said “we got here at the hands of people who don’t understand accountability.”
Crow submitted petitions to City Secretary Norma Grimaldo just minutes prior to the start of the 6 p.m. meeting – the deadline for submitting petitions.
City officials confirmed that Crow turned in 3,245 signatures. A minimum of 2,798 valid voter signatures is required to place the bond issue on the November ballot.
Council was expected on Tuesday to vote on whether to use certificates of obligation, which only requires a vote by council, to pay for the water plant project.
If the petitions are approved by the county, council will vote to accept the petitions during their Aug. 3 work session and schedule a bond election date, Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy said on Tuesday. If the petitions are not approved council would likely vote on the CO issue at their Aug. 10 council meeting.