The petitioners needed 5 percent of Odessa’s registered voters to force a May election on a proposal to create a new-at-large council position and give the mayor a vote, restructuring the board marked by turmoil during the past year.
But even though petitioners say they blew past that figure — collecting between 4,200 and 4,500 signatures — they still might not get the May election they seek.
As proponents of the council restructuring formally submitted their petition on Friday, triggering a process of certifying the petition and, if it’s deemed valid, calling an election, city officials wrestled with what to do next.
Under state law, a valid petition will force an election this year. Verifying the signatures as belonging to registered voters will fall to the Ector County Elections Office, which received the petition from City Secretary Norma Grimaldo on Friday.
Ector County Elections Administrator Lisa Sertuche said their five-person staff would begin verifying the signatures on Saturday.
“We are going to try to get them out as quickly as we can,” Sertuche said.
If they determine the petition is valid, Grimaldo will submit the results to the City Council.
There could be the rub.
The unsettled question of how the City Council will call the election still leaves open the possibility of a November election, which raises further questions of how the changes would take effect if voters approve them.
It all may hinge on a technicality asserted by City Attorney Larry Long, and a lack of clarity in state law on how a city council must call an election once it has a valid petition forcing one.
“How they order that, the process of how you get from certified petition to ordering the election, there is no clear statute on what that has to look like,” Texas Secretary of State spokesman Sam Taylor said. “That’s where it’s up to the city.”
What is clear is the City Council cannot refuse to call an election, Taylor said. They cannot even choose a date.
“No, they can’t,” Taylor said. “It has to be the next uniform election date, and the deadline for that is Feb. 16. Of course, if they miss the deadline, the next uniform election is Nov. 6.”
City officials say this will be the first election in Odessa forced by a petition. State officials say such elections are uncommon throughout Texas.
Typically, the City Council calls elections through an ordinance after two votes at separate meetings. Long, through the city spokeswoman, said the city’s charter calls for this to happen at “regular” Tuesday meetings, which are typically twice a month (although the council can delay them, as they usually do in December for the holidays).
The petition drive began in December after three council members voted against calling a 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.
Critically, now that the petition has been filed, there is only one regular City Council meeting between now and the ballot deadline. That meeting is scheduled for Feb. 13. If the City Council does not call the election until a second reading two weeks later, they would miss the ballot deadline, leaving November as the next election.
On Friday, that’s the path in front of the City Council outlined by Long.
“If the City Council is presented with a verified petition, they cannot vote against an agenda item to call the election,” the city asserted in an email through spokeswoman Andrea Goodson. “However, the City is required to follow the process outlined in the City charter and state law. This allows everyone to educate themselves on the issue and time for the City to prepare for a possible transition.”
But calling a May election this month would still leave months before Odessans vote. And, if voters passed the council changes, the proposal does not call for electing the new councilman or giving the mayor a vote until November.
Proponents of the May election dispute Long’s assessment and have consulted attorneys who agree, said Jim Rector, a council appointee on the planning and zoning commission and real estate developer who first proposed the changes to the council. But Rector said there has been no decision on whether to sue if the council does not.
Another proponent, Odessa oilman Kirk Edwards, said “there is a lot of confusion” on what it takes to call a May election “but once the City Council sees how many people have signed that petition, then maybe they can get that done.”
Only 2,365 signatures were needed to force an election on the council changes.
Without the extra signatures, that already exceeds the total amount of voters who cast ballots for all five City Council members combined. (Only Graff and Hamilton ever appeared on a ballot, because the other three ran unopposed).
Proponents of the changes say the total signatures show the level of support for the changes, dissatisfaction with a board where control can shift with political whims based on little to no voter input, and outrage over a series of controversial decisions such as the sacking of the city manager and the scuttling of incentives for an oilfield equipment supplier that ultimately went to Midland.
“As controversial as the City Council meetings have been over the last year, it would be good to get this election called sooner rather than later,” said Edwards, a former District 2 councilman. “It seems to me and a lot of other people that the quicker we get this resolved, the quicker the city can start healing.”
Mayor David Turner said he would meet with the legal staff this week to determine what the council must do and any options they have, including whether they could call the election at a special meeting.
“A lot of people are saying a lot of things, but I want to make sure everything is ironed out,” Turner said. “I want to make sure it’s all the way it’s supposed to be, because that’s what the citizens expect.”
The mayor continued: “I’ll be honest with you: We don’t know.”