The Odessa City Council is scheduled to vote today to call an election so Odessans can decide whether to expand the board after a year of turmoil by adding a new council man elected citywide and giving the mayor a vote.
But when Odessans will get to vote remained up in the air Monday as opposing groups of City Council members struggled over whether the election should be called in May or November.
Meanwhile, by late Monday afternoon, the Ector County Elections Office was finalizing their review of a petition seeking to force an election. Organizers reported collecting well over the amount of signatures that state law requires.
If the petition is validated as expected, city officials say the election will be the first forced in such a way in Odessa’s history. But even still, confusion remained for the City Council.
The City Council was scheduled to vote tonight on two items related to the election. One item pushed by District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner and District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant seeks to call the election for May in a single vote ahead of the Feb. 16 deadline to appear on the ballot.
“I’m not trying to stand in the way of this election,” Gardner said. “I know there are some who don’t want that to happen, who want to push it back as far as they can. But we’ll vote on it and see what happens.”
The opposing item advanced by District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales would call the election on the proposed changes for November.
For years, the City Council has called elections with a single vote as Gardner and Bryant call for now. This time, City Attorney Larry Long says doing so would be improper on a technicality and that the City Council cannot call the election ahead of the Feb. 16 deadline to appear on the May ballot.
But the agenda for today’s meeting, which is reviewed by the city’s legal department, nonetheless includes this option.
Long argues that the city’s charter requires the City Council to call elections through an ordinance and that normally, passing an ordinance requires two readings during “regular” City Council meetings. Those meetings usually fall twice a month, and today is the last one before the ballot deadline.
In calling at least the 2016, 2014, 2012 elections, the City Council did so through an “emergency measure” permitted under the city’s charter for reasons including “immediate preservation of the public business.”
The 2016 ordinance calling the election gave the reasoning for the emergency as to “give sufficient notice and publicity to all persons” interested in running “and to meet all other election requirements.”
A ballot deadline loomed.
“The election for City officials is critical and necessary for the immediate preservation of public business, which is one of the exact requirements for an emergency measure,” the city said in a statement after the OA asked Long about how the City Council called elections in the past. Failing to call one of those elections could create a vacancy, it continued, and a “petition calling for a charter amendment does not have this same deadline as it can be submitted at any time” and an election will follow.
A validated petition would not give the City Council an option to refuse calling an election, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. And they are not allowed to pick a date. Instead they have to call the election at “the next uniform election date” — May. The deadline for that is Feb. 16.
But state law does not specify the process that a city council must follow in calling an election once it has a valid petition forcing one. And the process outlined by Long would cause the City Council to miss the May ballot deadline, leaving the next election date as November.
Proponents of the changes sought a May election so Odessans could elect the new at-large councilman in November and the mayor would start getting a vote on council business in what would become a new seven-member board.
Delaying the election until November would raise questions of how the changes would take effect if voters approve them.
“We think it’s an emergency, because we think it needs to be done in a certain amount of time,” said Jim Rector, a council appointee on the planning and zoning commission who first proposed the changes.
Graff and Gonzales, along with District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, combined in December to shoot down a request to call a May election, prompting supporters to start the petition. The three council members, which faced criticism after a string of controversial decisions last year such as the firing of the city manager, have argued the expanded council would favor Odessa’s wealthier east side.
Graff and Hamilton argued the proposed changes would be discriminatory with Hamilton calling them “racist.”
Gonzales lent his support to a group formed to oppose the proposal, Odessa Together, which includes members of minority voting rights groups that said the changes 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.
Gonzales later said he disagreed with the argument about racial vote dilution.
Proponents of the changes say they would withstand scrutiny because they do not weaken the strength of minority votes and are supported by a cross section of Odessans. The city’s five council seats representing single districts would remain.