A group of opponents to a proposal to restructure the Odessa City Council threatened lawsuits over a petition drive seeking to force a May election and accused organizers Thursday of trying to dilute Hispanic votes in an attempt for wealthy east-side Odessans to control the local governing board.
Supporters argue that instead of diluting minority votes, the change would give all voters in the majority-Hispanic Odessa a greater say in council business after a year of turmoil that included the sacking of the city manager and contentious decisions over matters like public incentives for businesses.
But opponents, including District 5 City Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, see a different motive behind the proposal.
“This is about power and about a certain group of people: The good ol’ boys that are afraid of losing control,” Gonzales said. “Control that they have had for many years.”
The proposed changes would create a seven-member board with a mayor who can vote on council business and a new seat for a council member elected at large. Today, the mayor, who is already elected at large, only votes in cases of a tie among the five other council members representing single-member districts. Odessa voters would have to approve the change if the petition forces an election.
Gonzales was one of three council members who combined last month to shoot down a request to call the May election. The councilman argued Thursday that a special election is unnecessary and would cost about $50,000. He blamed the media for a negative perception of the City Council and defended his voting record in 2017.
“This is nothing but a way of creating a bloc to stop a so-called bloc,” Gonzales said.
The local League of United Latin American Citizens president Jesse Porras, who is also running for a justice of the peace position, said the City Council change would “turn the clock back on Odessa.”
LULAC’s lawyer Domingo Garcia said supporters of the petition were trying to “rig the system for the powerful and the rich” and said he would sue organizers individually if they file the petition. He also threatened to sue organizations and the city if the petition is filed.
Mixed-election systems like the one proposed for Odessa are common in the state, in cities including Midland and Houston. A change would require voter approval on a charter amendment. And state law requires local governmental bodies to call such an election if 5 percent of voters sign a petition demanding one. In Odessa, that is about 2,500 voters.
Even if voters approve it, Garcia argued the plan to restructure the Odessa City Council would be “illegal” because it would weaken the strength of minority votes.
“You could say you want to have at-large systems and dilute the votes of Odessans — it’s still illegal,” Garcia said.
Garcia, a former Dallas politician who specializes in personal injury law, was proactive in the political fight to create single-member districts in Dallas in the early 1990s.
“It’s intentional discrimination in order to disenfranchise Latinos and African Americans in Odessa in order to empower a group that has, even though they are minority in population, they are still a majority of the voting bloc,” Garcia said. “And therefore they would elect the at-large.”
Garcia compared the proposal to reform the Odessa City Council to failed attempt to redraw council district of Pasadena in Harris County.
But there are important differences.
A slim margin of Pasadena voters in 2013 approved an amendment changing two single-district seats to at large seats. The city is majority Hispanic but turnout among that demographic was historically lower than white residents.
And civil rights attorneys representing Hispanic voters sued successfully, arguing the city had diluted the strength of Hispanic voters at a time when their political power was growing. A federal judge earlier this year determined Pasadena had violated the Voting Rights Act and put the city under federal supervision.
But in Odessa, all the five single-member districts would remain intact.
Two of them, Districts 1 and 5, were created to boost black and Hispanic representation on the board. The current system was approved by voters in 1991, who decided to abolish an at-large position with District 5. The changes went into effect two years later.
Despite the differences, Garcia argued Thursday the Odessa proposal is “very similar” to what Pasadena did.
“What is the motive?” Garcia said. “. . . The motive is they fired the city manager, and it’s a three bloc vote: a white woman, a black man and a Hispanic man. And they override the white males basically. And now you want to change the system.”
The chief organizer of the petition drive to force the May election, Jim Rector, declined to comment when asked to respond to the Thursday press conference. But he’s previously argued that the petition would not dilute minority votes, that it is not intended to and that the result of the change should be greater accountability on the city board.
“It protects everybody,” Rector, a real estate developer who serves as an appointee on the city’s planning and zoning commission, said in November. “We have outgrown a five single-member district council.”
Supporters argue the change would make sure power is not concentrated in the hands of five people in an environment where control of the council can change with political whims and little to no voter input.
As he collected signatures last month, Rector said he sought a diverse group of supporters from throughout Odessa’s five districts.
“That proves that everybody in the entire city is for this,” Rector said.
Domingo Garcia, legal counsel for Odessa Together, discusses at a Thursday news conference the group’s legal intentions regarding an effort by those attempting to get a petition signed to create an “at-large” city council position and voting status for the mayor. Others present are Filiberto Gonzales, city councilman; Rubin Ramirez, LULAC District 6; Art Leal, past president Una Voz Unida; and Jesse Porras, LULAC member.
BY MARK STERKEL