Council change group files petition

A group seeking to expand the Odessa City Council after a year of controversial decisions submitted a petition Friday at City Hall to force a May election so Odessa voters can decide on the proposed changes.

Organizers of the petition drive said they collected more than 4,200 signatures of Odessans demanding the election on an amendment to the city’s charter. That’s well over the 5 percent of voters required to sign a petition under state law to compel the city to call an election.

“It says the citizens of Odessa really wanted this petition, they want an at-large council member and they want the mayor to vote,” said Jim Rector, a council appointee on the planning and zoning commission and real estate developer who first proposed the changes to the council.

The changes would create a seven-member voting board. Today, there are five single-member districts, which would remain, and a mayor who can only vote in cases of a tie.

The petition drive began in December, after three council members combined to deny a request to call the May election: District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales. District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner said they support the changes.

On Friday, Rector read a letter signed by 16 people formally submitting the petition to Grimaldo.

“I want to tell all the citizens that signed and all the people who came to us and helped with this: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Rector said during a press conference afterwards. “It was an incredible, community, come-together event.”

Filing the petition triggered a series of steps before an election is called. The first is validating the petition. City Secretary Norma Grimaldo, who received the petition at City Hall on Friday, turned over the stack of signatures to the Ector County Elections Office within hours to begin verifying that enough registered voters signed to make the petition valid.

If county election officials determine the petition is valid, Grimaldo will submit the results to the City Council. Then, the council “must order the election” per state law, the Texas Secretary of State’s office said.

But questions lingered Friday about how that should happen — and how quickly — as a Feb. 16 deadline approaches to get on the ballot for the May 5 election.

“We’ve got to figure out the logistics to call the election and then run a campaign,” said Chris Wray, an insurance agent who has collected signatures and helped organize the petition drive. Wray was one of several supporters who delivered the petition with Rector at City Hall.

Rector said he believed it was “up in the air” whether the council would call the election by Feb. 16, but voters are guaranteed an election this year and supporters of the changes will continue to campaign for them.

City officials said an election forced by the voters would be the first of its kind for Odessa.

And without precedent to turn to, confusion remained about the steps the council must take once a petition is validated.

“That is what I’m going to be working on the first part of next week, just to make sure we’ve got all our ducks in a row,” Mayor David Turner said. “Really it’s unprecedented, and there is nothing to go back to and say this is how you do it.”

There may be legal challenges to the proposed changes. A group that formed to oppose them, Odessa Together, which included members of minority voting rights groups, argued the seven-member board would illegally dilute the strength of Hispanic voters. The group also threatened to challenge the changes in court and sue individual organizers of the petition drive.

Proponents of the changes say they would be upheld because they do not weaken the strength of minority votes and are supported by a cross section of Odessans.

“If they want to sue us, well that’s their prerogative,” Rector said. “It’s a free country. I don’t think they will do it.”