Proponents of forcing a special election so Odessans can vote on a proposal to restructure the Odessa City Council planned to continue their petition drive, after a group opposing the election threatened to sue organizers and to block the changes in court if the change effort succeeds.
Organizers say they have collected more than half of the roughly 2,500 signatures they need under state law to force the May election on a charter amendment that would give the mayor voting power and create a new council seat elected by voters citywide. On Friday, volunteers returned to Music City Mall, where they planned to collect signatures during mall hours through Jan. 14.
The chief organizer of the petition drive, Jim Rector, said supporters set a self-imposed target of turning in the completed petition the next day. Rector, a real estate developer and appointee on the city’s planning and zoning commission, was one of the volunteers singled out Thursday by a group opposing the restructuring proposal.
That group, calling themselves Odessa Together, threatened to sue Rector and two other volunteers individually.
But Rector declined to respond to the accusations made by Odessa Together but described the threats as an attempt at “intimidation.”
“It’s not stopping anything,” Rector said.
On Friday Rector said he remained confident that the change he seeks is a legal method of reforming the City Council so that power is not concentrated in the hands of only five council members who represent single districts, in an environment where control of the council can change with political whims and little to no voter input. The change would require a charter amendment approved by voters.
But opponents including District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales and representatives of the local League of United Latin American Citizens accused Rector and other volunteers Thursday of trying to dilute the voting strength of Hispanic Odessans so that wealthy east side Odessans control the local governing board.
Supporters of restructuring the City Council sharply denied that claim, including Chris Wray, an insurance agent who has collected signatures and was also threatened on Thursday.
“It’s people from all over,” Wray said. “ . . . This is a community wide engagement, not just a select few good ol’ boys as they wanted to try to paint it.”
Rector argued that the changes would not weaken the voting strength of Hispanic people in Odessa and that people from the city’s five districts were signing the petition, including many Hispanic people.
“We are making it city wide,” Rector said. “There isn’t one particular group we are looking for. We know there are disgruntled people.”
At the mall, volunteers including bilingual supporters of the petition drive put up signs written in Spanish.
“In the mall, it’s a way to reach a lot more people,” said Kathleen Rector, Jim Rector’s wife. They had taken a break from collecting signatures at the mall on Dec. 31 but decided to return.
“We are established at the mall and by having a place where people can come to and know that we are going to be there, that’s why I felt that it was important to fill out the rest of the week by being there,” Kathleen Rector said. “We will get a lot of people.”
Other volunteers had agreed to collect signatures at places including their churches, clubs and workplaces.
LULAC’s lawyer Domingo Garcia had threatened the individual lawsuits, describing the proposed restructuring as an attempt to “rig the system for the powerful and the rich.”
“It is illegal, unconstitutional, un-American, un-Texan and un-Odessan,” said Garcia, a former Dallas politician who specializes in personal injury law and was proactive in the political fight to create single-member districts in Dallas in the early 1990s. “It is seeking to take away the rights of voters to select a city council member of their choice. So I want to put them on notice today that if they proceed with this petition, if they file it, we will sue them individually.”
Many supporters of the council restructuring proposal, including Odessans who are not part of the petition drive, were critical of the threat to sue advocates.
“If you listen carefully to what they are saying, it is that the only people who are signing this petition live in one part of town and implying that they are white people,” said Arlo Chavira, a south Odessa resident running for a seat on the Ector County Commissioners Court who said he plans to sign the petition. “But the case is now that Hispanics live and African Americans live throughout the city. They live in the north side and the east side. So that’s inaccurate what the Odessa Together group is saying.”
Chavira, who said he is not involved in the petition drive, said he believes it’s wrong to deny Odessans a chance to vote on the changes.
“The people are the ones who are going to make these changes,” Chavira said. “It’s not a group of people. It’s not the council. It’s the citizens of Odessa.”
Garcia compared the proposed restructuring of the Odessa City Council to a failed attempt to redraw the council districts of Pasadena in Harris County. And he said the voting rights organization that successfully sued Pasadena, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, would also join in suing Odessa if voters approve the changes in May.
However, MALDEF has made no such decision yet, said Nina Perales, the organization’s vice president of litigation who worked on the Pasadena case. But Perales said the group is concerned and monitoring the effort in Odessa to ensure voting rights are protected.
What Pasadena tried to do differs from the proposed reforms in Odessa.
In Pasadena, voters in 2013 narrowly approved an amendment replacing two-single district seats with at large seats. MALDEF successfully argued that the city had diluted the strength of Hispanic voters at a time when it was growing.
A federal judge earlier this year determined Pasadena had violated the Voting Rights Act and overturned the new districts. The judge also returned the city to federal oversight that stopped for the rest of Texas after a US Supreme Court decision in 2013 cleared the list of state and local governments required to submit changes to election laws for federal “preclearance.”
Unlike in the Pasadena case, none of Odessa’s five-single member districts would be altered. And it’s relatively rare for a city to expand the size of its council, Perales said.
But Perales said the proposed change in Odessa could present the same problem if the restructuring shifted electoral influence from single member districts to at-large positions.
“It’s still a matter of concern if the council dynamics are being altered in a way to shift influence away from minority voters,” Perales said. “And I’m not saying that that’s happening in Odessa. Because one of the very important questions to ask in Odessa is whether there is racially polarized voting.”
That would require analysis of voter data to determine. The signatures on the petition, and turnout during the election, if there is one, could yield insight.
Proponents argue restructuring the council is widely supported by a cross section of Odessans.
Wray said his sense collecting signatures was support from “an equal mix of everyone that probably represents our demographics.” And he said he was confident the results would show that under scrutiny.
“I welcome that,” he said.