Unhappy with the current course of their city council, Odessans are taking it upon themselves to enact what they say is much needed reform.
A petition currently circulating throughout the community calls for a May election that would allow Odessans to vote to amend their city charter, adding an at-large seat and allowing the mayor to vote on council business. Odessa’s city council is currently comprised of five single-member districts and the mayor may only vote in case of a tie among the other council members.
The number of city council seats was last amended in Odessa’s City Charter in 1993, when its population totaled 91,000. Today, with approximately 125,000 living in the West Texas city, proponents of the petition hope that an increase in voices on city council will allow for better representation of the community and discourage the current trend of “block voting.”
The effort has received pushback, however, from several local activists including the local League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who claim that the effort is racially-motivated. Also vocally opposed to the change are Councilmembers Malcom Hamilton (District 1), Barbara Graff (District 3), and Filiberto Gonzales (District 5), who have all been criticized for their tendency to vote in unison on contentious issues.
All three councilmembers have not hesitated to publicly voice their disapproval with the proposed charter amendment. At the December 12 council meeting, where an item was placed on the ballot to call for a special May election, Hamilton called the petition effort “immoral, unethical tactics” and the agenda “racist and bigoted.” He continued by saying, “Stop trying to circumvent democracy because you can no longer have your way like spoiled children.”
Graff proceeded to suggest that calling for a May vote to amend the charter is “gerrymandering” and “not the right way,” and contends the public needs to wait for the next census to evaluate the council’s structure.
However, Councilmember Dewey Bryant (District 2), who placed the item on the ballot, advocated for allowing the community the opportunity to vote in May, stating, “This is on the agenda today because we live in a great democratic country that allows the voters to decide what they want.”
Since that council meeting, LULAC’s lawyer Domingo Garcia has threatened to individually sue organizers of the petition if they follow through with filing it, saying that adding an at-large council member would suppress minority votes. He also referred to a case in Pasadena where community members voted in 2013 to replace two single-member districts with two at-large districts. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) successfully sued the city saying that the change diluted the Hispanic vote.
In Odessa’s case, however, the proposed amendment would simply add an at-large district while also allowing the mayor a vote – rather than replacing a single-member district with an at-large one. Lead petition organizer Jim Rector, as well as co-organizer Chris Wray, have consistently rejected allegations that this effort is in any way racially-motivated. Rather, outreach for the petition has taken place in all five districts within the city and, according to Wray, “at least half of the signatories so far are Hispanic.”
2,500 signatures are needed in order to hold a special election this May and, despite threats, organizers say they are over halfway to their goal and plan to submit the petition in January.
In a recent post on the group’s Facebook page Drain the Swamp in Odessa, Wray wrote, “Jim is determined to not let a small group intimidate us into denying the citizens of Odessa their right to vote again by another small group. We will not have our free speech denied either. So let’s handle this like Americans and make our vote count whether that is a vote for or against this proposal.”