City officials say the November election will be the first ever forced by voters. After the Odessa City Council refused to call one voluntarily on a proposal to expand the board, thousands of voters who wanted a chance to decide on the changes signed a petition that forced the council’s hand.
That became final on Tuesday, when the council cast the second and final vote ordering the election in November.
“Now the real work begins,” said Jim Rector, an organizer of the petition drive who first proposed the changes.
Rector said that would include a campaign to inform voters about the restructuring proposal and convincing them to support it. The changes would add a new council member elected by voters citywide and give the mayor a vote on council business.
If approved, the council would become a seven-member voting board. The five positions representing city districts would remain.
Further conflict remained likely over the election. Arguments continue over how the proposed charter amendment that would restructure the board will be presented to voters. A group opposing the proposed restructuring has argued it would weaken minority voting strength, which is disputed by supporters.
“There is going to be a huge response to this vote, and I’m looking forward to that,” said District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, who has opposed the changes, in an interview with reporters after the Tuesday meeting.
Hamilton helped form a majority of three council members who combined in December to shoot down a request to voluntarily call a May election on the proposed change. Those same officials, who also include District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, also combined earlier this month to delay the election to November.
Graff and Gonzales have suggested the council may try to revise the proposal — trying to split it into two votes or to pack the ballot with another restructuring plan.
City Attorney Larry Long has also said voters should be able to elect a new councilman at the same time they vote on whether to create the position. And that presents supporters with another wrinkle: Encouraging people to run for a position that might not exist.
“We are going to advertise pretty heavily to get people from all the districts to run at large,” Rector said, adding he was confident people would step up and that the proposal would pass.
At least 2,757 Odessa voters signed the petition — enough under state law to force the council to call the election. After elections officials deemed the petition valid, a controversy ensued over when to call the election.
District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner had pushed for calling a May election in a single vote ahead of the deadline under state law put the issue on the ballot. The council has called elections that way for years, and Gardner and Bryant argued there was nothing wrong about doing it the same way this time.
But — Hamilton, Graff and Gonzales — succeeded in a 3-2 vote on Feb. 13 denying petitioners the May election they sought.
Ultimately, splitting along the same lines that saw the request, the City Council voted 3-2 to pass a separate ordinance calling the November election.
Board members changed their votes Tuesday in the second and final vote on that ordinance. But it still passed, 4-1.
Hamilton was the lone dissenting vote, switching his position to deny calling the November election. After the meeting, he declined to explain why but predicted a strong turnout in November. “Let’s get it over with,” Hamilton said. “Let the citizens show exactly what they feel about what’s going on.”
Bryant and Gardner voted this time to call the November election. Gardner said after the meeting he wanted to ensure its passage.
“May is done and gone, so I wanted us to make sure we have one,” Gardner said.
The debate had become heated in recent months. Tension repeatedly surfaced over Odessa’s eastward growth as arguments against the election turned to development instead of race.
Hamilton had 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 the Mayor.
He also accused organizers of being guided by self-interest. Some of the supporters addressed that Tuesday.
“I’m tired of hearing anyone in favor of this issue either has something personal to gain, in fact even to the point of being a crook, or having some criminal interest in it, or being a racist,” said Drew Crutcher, a civil engineer and former economic development volunteer. “I don’t have any of those motives, and everybody that I talk to doesn’t have them either. Simply, I think Odessa has grown. . . . It needs more representation for all of the citizens, and not just in one district.”