A controversial vote by an Odessa City Council majority to delay an election demanded by voters raised critical questions about how a proposal to expand the board would work if it passes in November.
A successful petition drive, which began in December after three members of the City Council combined to reject a request to voluntarily call a May election, left the City Council with no option to refuse submitting the proposed changes to voters.
Odessa has never had an election forced by a petition drive, city officials say. And proponents of the changes — which would add a council member elected by voters citywide and give the mayor a vote — celebrated the successful grassroots effort.
But organizers had sought the May election for a reason. It would have allowed Odessans to vote, up or down, on the proposed expansion of the City Council to a seven-member voting board. If it passed, the voters could elect the new councilman in November, when three other council races could also appear on the ballot. Then the changes would take effect afterwards.
The decision to punt on the election until November created uncertainty, even as City Attorney Larry Long said voters should be able to elect a new councilman at the same time they vote on whether to create the position.
But now, any candidate hoping to run for a new council seat could be faced with spending time and money seeking an office without the certainty that it will exist. There is concern about voter confusion as Odessans face multiple new items in a general election. And District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff even suggested the board might try to revise the charter amendment proposal.
Long told the council Tuesday they will “need to make some decisions regarding the terms and that sort of thing, if you wish” for proposed at-large seat but they are “pretty well stuck with two and four year terms.”
Councilwoman Barbara Graff suggested the council could revise the charter amendment proposal before voters get to vote on it.”
It was one of several signs Tuesday that further struggles lie ahead of the November election.
The council is scheduled to take a second and final vote calling the election later this month. In the meantime, proponents including Kirk Edwards, a former District 2 councilman, said supporters of the changes should be proud of their effort to fix their city government, even if they won’t get the May vote they sought.
“The good news from tonight is there will be an election this year, which will allow the people, the citizens of Odessa, to decide if they want an at-large position and allow the mayor to vote,” said Edwards, an Odessa oilman. “And that’s what the petition was about.”
In the end, a tally showed at least 2,757 Odessa voters had signed the petition. Elections officials found that more were possibly valid, but the total was already more than enough required under state law to force an election.
The majority that voted to call the November election was comprised of District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales. The vote followed the defeat by the three of another item calling for an election in May.
The same council members were also behind a series of controversies that prompted outrage among Odessa voters, including the firing of the city manager, secret meetings and the scuttling of an incentives deal for an oilfield equipment company that eventually located in Midland, among others.
A series of back-and-forths, barbs and winding arguments preceded the Tuesday vote.
Supporters of the May election, District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner, made impassioned arguments about following the will of Odessans expressed in the petition.
“Is that not the voice of the public?” Bryant said. “Is that not what we’re about? Is that not what this country was founded on?”
Graff delivered a winding interpretation on the meaning of state law that conflicted at times with what the Texas Secretary of State’s office had outlined. She argued the council gets to choose an election date (the state had said they don’t). She suggested the council could revise the charter amendment proposal before voters get to vote on it. And she said the whole charter amendment that she ultimately voted to advance to voters might be illegal because it involves more than one change.
But proponents, including the supporters on the City Council, argued there was nothing wrong about calling an election for May in a single vote. The deadline to get on the May ballot is Friday. And the City Council has called November elections for years with a single vote ahead of a ballot deadline.
Long said they could not use a so-called “emergency measure” that allows an election to be called in one vote in this case. That was disputed.
Gardner argued they should call the election with one vote, just as they always have in the pasta. On Wednesday he said a May election on the changes would have presented voters with a “cleaner” choice than they will get in November, when they will have to decide on multiple intersecting items.
“If the voters in Odessa say ‘No we don’t want this, then they’ll vote no, we don’t want to do that’,” Gardner said during the meeting. But they have spoken and said let’s have the election May 5. I don’t know why we would not want to do that.”
Graff blamed organizers of the petition drive for not turning in the results earlier. So did Gonzales.
“Yes we had some people that signed the petition,” Gonzales said. “Yes they did what they were supposed to do. But they missed the deadlines. They had some inadequate people that didn’t do their homework on when they were supposed to turn in the petition. Why is it the City Council’s fault? It is what it is.”
But in many cases, the council members who opposed the May election just argued why they don’t like the proposed changes to the board or the election.
Gonzales and Mayor David Turner squared off at one point, Gonzales and Gardner at another. Hamilton chided Bryant, City Attorney Larry Long, the mayor and Gonzales. And he also made broad accusations against supporters of the changes, including that they had committed “crime.” He refused to explain that or name who he was talking about when pressed by Turner.
“You’re upset because we did something that you didn’t like, possibly because of self-interest, not because of the greater good of Odessa,” Hamilton said to proponents of the council changes.
None of that was really about calling an election. And the petition, deemed valid Tuesday, did not give the City Council the option to refuse calling one.
“You forced the citizens to get a petition,” Bryant said to fellow council members. “We, this council, forced the citizens to get a petition. They got a petition.”