Organizers for Sunrise El Paso and Austin-based Ground Game Texas turned in more than 39,000 voter signatures Monday in their effort to put a climate charter amendment before city of El Paso voters.
Now, it is up to the City Clerk’s Office to determine whether the amendment will go up for a vote in November.
The El Paso City Council has until Aug. 22 to approve all city charter amendments that will appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Because this is a citizen-led petition to amend the charter, City Clerk Laura Prine must validate that petition signatures came from registered voters living within El Paso city limits.
Ground Game Texas founder Mike Siegel, a former assistant city attorney in Austin, called on the clerk to use a sampling method rather than verifying signatures individually. The Texas Election code allows local governments to verify a sample of 25% of the total signatures when a petition garners more than 1,000 signatures.
“We don’t want the city clerk to say ‘we don’t have the resources to count this’ as a reason a measure signed by nearly 40,000 El Pasoans doesn’t make the ballot,” Siegel said.
The wide-ranging charter amendment would enshrine climate policy into the city’s governing documents to include reducing city emissions, investing in renewable energy and creating climate jobs. It would also reshape city government through the establishment of a climate department, a ban on the sale or transfer of city-owned water for fossil fuel industry activities, and “employ(ing) all available efforts” to convert El Paso Electric into a city-owned utility.
Ana Fuentes Zueck, the campaign manager at Sunrise El Paso, said the effort is a reaction against the climate crisis, seen in record-breaking heat across Texas, and increased periods of flooding and intense drought. Government at all levels is failing to solve the problem, she said.
“This is 39,000 community members who refuse to accept the current status of environmental destruction and are brave enough to envision an El Paso with clean air, drinkable water and a bright future,” Fuentes Zueck said in a speech before City Hall Monday. “This is a celebration of our city’s willingness to fight for the climate and to defend our health.”
About three dozen people, mostly affiliated with Sunrise El Paso, gathered outside City Hall to celebrate with noisemakers, chants and mariachis.
Organizers began collecting signatures in February. Texas state law requires 20,000 valid signatures (or 5% of the registered number of voters, whichever is smaller) for charter amendments.
City Council plans to introduce an ordinance announcing the special election of charter amendments at its Aug. 2 meeting. These include Sunrise El Paso’s petition, in addition to amendments being proposed by an advisory committee of council member-appointees.
Council is required to adopt the ordinance on Aug. 16, its last regularly-scheduled meeting ahead of the Aug. 22 deadline.
Texas law does not require a city clerk to validate and certify charter amendment initiative signatures within a set period of time.
A petition of 20,000 or more signatures typically takes “12-15 days from the date the petition is received by the City Clerk” to certify, according to the Austin city clerk’s office website.
The city of El Paso’s website does not provide information regarding charter amendment initiatives.
If the climate charter amendment does not make it on November’s ballot, organizers will have to wait two years to restart the process, due to state limits on how often charters can be amended.
The climate charter initiative has cost Ground Game Texas close to $400,000, Siegel said, above the $300,000 estimate he initially gave.
Siegel said the nonprofit provided a copy of the city’s registered voter file to organizers to match every line on the petition to “make sure we’re not turning in junk signatures.” He said at least 20,500 signatures were verified by organizers.
Siegel launched Ground Game Texas in 2021 with Julie Oliver after they both lost their Austin-area Democratic congressional campaigns. It aims to “achieve progressive wins,” including decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, which voters in Austin overwhelmingly approved in May.
If passed, this would be the first climate charter in the state.