The Odessa City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday to call an election allowing Odessans to vote on a proposal to create a new council member elected by voters citywide and give the mayor a vote, creating a seven-member voting board.
But an agenda released late Friday shows separate groups of council members struggle over whether that election should be in May or November. They are scheduled to vote Tuesday on two separate items related to the election.
One, 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.
The council has called elections in this manner for years, but City Attorney Larry Long has argued doing so would be improper in this case on the technicality that there are no grounds for an “emergency measure” that allows the council to pass an ordinance in a single vote. But the agenda for Tuesday, which is reviewed by the legal department, nonetheless includes this option.
The opposing item gives the council an option to call the election on the proposed changes for November.
In the end, the council might not have a choice.
A petition still being certified by the Ector County Elections Office on Friday will force the election under state law if it’s deemed valid. And organizers of the petition drive reported collecting well over the amount of signatures that the law requires. County elections officials were expected to present the results of the petition to the city on Monday.
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. And 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.
If the petition is validated as expected, city officials say this will be the first election in Odessa forced by a petition.
ORIGINAL POST 2:50 p.m., Feb. 8: The group trying to force an election so Odessans can vote on a proposal to expand the Odessa City Council by adding a new at-large council member and giving the mayor a vote turned in a petition last week, and city officials described it as an unprecedented effort.
Then the city’s legal department presented a new wrinkle in the form of a council procedure that could block the May election that petitioners seek. City Attorney Larry Long, through a spokeswoman, outlined a method of calling an election that would on a technicality force the City Council to miss the Feb. 16 ballot deadline for calling an election.
It would delay the election until November. And the more than 4,200 people that organizers estimated had signed the petition would have to wait.
But a review of city records shows that the City Council can call the election for May during their next meeting on Tuesday — if they follow the same procedure they followed for calling at least three elections in recent years.
“It vindicates the council to be able to do what the people are showing they want: For them to call the election at the next available council meeting,” said Kirk Edwards, a proponent of the proposed changes and former District 2 councilman. “Because this has been done for years.”
Proponents wanted a May election. That way, if the proposal passed, 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.
And because the City Council cannot refuse to call the election once the petition is validated, calling the election should just take one meeting, said Jim Rector, who first proposed the changes and spearheaded the petition. Rector is a council appointee on the planning and zoning commission and real estate developer.
But Long’s argument after the petition was filed Friday went like this: The city’s charter requires the City Council to call elections through an ordinance. Passing those requires two readings during “regular” City Council meetings, which usually fall twice a month. The problem in this case is that the ballot deadline for May is Feb. 16, and the council has only one regular meeting before then, so they cannot call the election in time.
“Right now, May is not a possibility because there is only one City Council meeting,” city Spokeswoman Andrea Goodson told CBS-7 earlier this week, relaying Long’s assertion and adding that’s the case “unless the attorneys can get together and find another way to make it hit the May election.”
Records show that in 2016, 2014 and 2012, the City Council called elections with only one vote as the deadline to appear on the ballot approached. The state deadline to appear to place an item on the ballot is 78 days before an election, or Feb. 16 in this case.
As the 2016 ordinance states, the council called the election in one vote by “emergency measure” that allowed them to forgo the second vote. It was signed by Long after its passage.
Online records of council meetings do not go back further than 2012, so it’s unclear how long calling city elections in this way has been standard practice.
Approached during an Ector County Bar Association event Thursday, Long said in a brief interview he had not looked beyond 2012 and did not know. Asked if the council would call the election for May in one vote on Tuesday, Long said “at this time I don’t think there’s been a decision on that.”
He said “it is a different situation between the elections” and the charter amendment but declined to elaborate, saying the city planned to issue a written statement explaining how.
Verifying the signatures on the petition as registered voters falls to the Ector County Elections Office, which received the petition from City Secretary Norma Grimaldo on Feb. 2. The elections staff began vetting signatures the next day.
If they determine the petition is valid by today, Grimaldo will submit the results to the City Council. At that point, the City Council cannot refuse to call an election. They cannot even choose a date.
“To me, if the petition is certified within the 78 days, it shouldn’t be an issue,” District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner said. “The council should call an election.”
But there is a lack of clarity in state law on how a city council must call an election once it has a valid petition.
“How they order that, the process of how you get from certified petition to ordering the election, there is no clear statute on what that has to look like,” Texas Secretary of State spokesman Sam Taylor said last week. “That’s where it’s up to the city.”
The City Council would have to call it for the next uniform election date. That’s May. But if they miss the deadline — and they would under the process outlined by Long — the next uniform election date is November.
Chris Wray, an insurance agent who has collected signatures and helped organize the petition drive, said he was “shocked” once informed of the city’s past practices calling elections.
“To me it shows that they are trying to delay and not let the people who signed the petition have their voices be heard,” said Wray adding that the city’s legal department is “trying to come up with an excuse for not calling the election when they’ve done it this way in the past.”
Presented past methods of calling an election, Gardner said he and District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant would schedule a vote on Tue
sday for the City Council to call a May election with a single vote by the board. Gardner said it would come to a vote if the petition forcing the council to call an election isn’t validated in time.
In December, three council members combined to deny calling the May election: District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton, District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales.
“The council shouldn’t stand in the way,” Gardner said. “A second reading shouldn’t stand in the way of an election, whether you have to call it as an emergency or not.”