In the end, a tally showed at least 2,757 Odessa voters had signed the petition — enough to force an election so voters could decide on a proposal to add a new Odessa City Council member and give the mayor a vote, even if the existing City Council refused to voluntarily give Odessans that chance.
Finally, a majority of the City Council voted Tuesday to call an election. Just not the May election proponents of the changes wanted.
In a 3-2 vote following a heated debate, a majority of council members refused to call a May election. Instead, splitting along those same lines, they called the election in November in a separate vote.
The majority was comprised of District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales. They 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 never came, among others.
But some of the supporters who attended Tuesday still celebrated a successful effort to force an election — something city officials say is the first of its kind in Odessa.
“The people of Odessa spoke with that petition that they wanted to see change in our City Council,” said Dottie Chavez, a school counselor who helped collect signatures during the petition drive, which began in December after the same three City Council members refused to voluntarily call an election.
Chavez said she was proud Odessans will get to vote on the changes even after the City Council’s decision to block the vote in May.
“The main reason is because we want to get things moving in a different direction immediately,” she said.
There were other mixed emotions among petitioners. Kirk Edwards, a former District 2 Councilman, said he wanted the May election like fellow supporters of the changes but was not disappointed. The council is scheduled to cast a second and final vote calling the election later this month.
“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.”
For a moment, it appeared the council might reject both items calling for an election, as Hamilton hesitated before the final aye vote.
“What is this for that we are voting for?” he said, before voting with Graff and Gonzales.
A series of back-and-forths, barbs and winding arguments had preceded the 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.
“Do the citizens really have anything that they can do or say in this city?” Bryant said.
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 proposed changes before voters get to vote on them. 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.
“Do you follow the voice of the people or do you follow the law?” Graff said.
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 Feb. 16. And the City Council has called November elections for years with a single vote ahead of a ballot deadline.
City Attorney Larry 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.
“…In the past it’s been done by this council,” Gardner said, adding later that “if the voters in Odessa say ‘No we don’t want this, then they’ll vote no, we don’t want to do that.’ 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.
Tension resurfaced over Odessa’s eastward growth in recent years, as Hamilton, like Gonzales before, focused on development and backed off arguments about racial discrimination.
“Stop putting business over people,” Hamilton said, without being specific. “This is not about a Hispanic thing. This is not about a black thing. This is not about a white thing. This is about a dollar thing.”
None of that was really about calling an election. And the petition, deemed valid Tuesday, did not give the City Council 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.”