The El Paso City Council unanimously agreed to push back an election to amend the city’s charter until 2023 after staff raised concerns Tuesday that signatures on a petition submitted last week could not be verified in time to meet the November 8 general election deadline.
“Make no mistake, this article will be put on the ballot if and when the signatures are verified,” Pro Tem Mayor Peter Svarzbein said.
Amendments sent through the charter’s ad hoc committee and petition to include far-reaching climate policy in the charter, currently under consideration, will be on the ballot in May 2023 – five months after the election of November, which include four races representative of the city.
City officials also voted unanimously to direct the city manager to provide a monthly update on signature verification at Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas.
Ana Fuentes Zueck, campaign manager for Sunrise El Paso, called the compromise a “bittersweet victory.” She said while the group was disappointed the amendment would not go to the public in November, an election in May allows more time to organize and register voters.
“We had a lot of people in our signature lists who were supportive, but weren’t registered to vote,” Fuentes Zueck said. “So this pause allows us to go back and talk to these people to get them registered to vote.”
At least three dozen people spoke or submitted remarks during the public comment portion of the five-hour discussion on Tuesday. Many speakers volunteered for Sunrise El Paso and brought signs that read “This is a climate emergency,” while others urged city officials to accept the petition.
City Clerk Laura Prine said her office hired a statistician to sample 25% of signatures submitted for verification, which is allowed by Texas election code. His office estimated the process would take 100 working days to verify the 9,750 sample signatures out of the 39,156 submitted last week. According to City Attorney Karla Nieman, the 9,750 signatures in the sample must be registered voters living within the city limits.
Organizers said they submitted 21,065 signatures which were verified against a copy of the voters list. Prine said his office would use them eventually, after a sample was created by the statistician.
The clerk’s office has eight employees, but they are split between validating petition signatures and other duties, Prine said; these duties include posting agendas for public meetings and verifying candidate nominations for upcoming elections.
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said the city clerk’s office could not hire additional staff, on the advice of the city’s legal department. Gonzalez said the city of Austin was sued for providing additional assistance in verifying signatures in a separate charter petition.
When Rep. Isabel Salcido proposed the use of her staff for the verification effort, Gonzalez reiterated that hiring more was impossible.
“As we discovered, while doing our legal research, another city did. And the whole process was null and void. Because you can’t do that,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t just add other people. You must use the city clerk’s office. They are trained to do that.
Ground Game Texas founder Mike Siegel, who is also a former assistant city attorney for Austin, called Gonzalez’s statement “misinformation,” saying the issue was that a city auditor had been called. to verify signatures with the city clerk’s office, thereby violating Austin. city charter.
“But that doesn’t preclude the city clerk from hiring temporary staff or borrowing staff that was, for example, so generously donated by the city representative,” Siegel said.
Later, Nieman clarified Gonzalez’s comments. Nieman said the Austin City Clerk’s Office was sued 20 years ago, but she didn’t have the details. She said the current practice, following the lawsuit, in the Austin City Clerk’s Office is to hire a statistician to help with the audit. El Paso adopted a similar method.
She said any additional hiring in the city clerk’s office was at Gonzalez’s discretion.
“It’s not about the number of people, it’s the process and the number of signatures they have to overcome,” she said, adding that using a sample would reduce the burden of work.
Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, whistles and applause from the crowd punctuated each speaker. At one point, Prine called for “decorum” after people sitting in the kitchen shouted Nieman’s request for city officials to go in behind closed doors to offer legal advice, warning that Siegel was not a city attorney.
Commentators called on city officials to direct resources to the city clerk’s office to verify signatures in time to make the Nov. 8 ballot, and called for an end to an “apology” from city staff .
“My question here today is why are we, once again, facing resistance, when what we are asking is that you stand with the people in an increasingly hostile state that does not listen to or represent their constituents,” said Sunrise El Paso member Angel Ulloa.
“Mr. Gonzalez, that’s why your contract was extended.