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The El Paso City Council unanimously agreed to push back the election to amend the city’s charter to 2023 after staff raised concerns Tuesday that signatures on a petition submitted last week could not be verified in time to meet the deadlines for the Nov. 8 general election.
“Make no mistake this item is going onto the ballot if and when the signatures are verified,” Mayor Pro Tem Peter Svarzbein said.
Amendments sent through the Ad Hoc Charter Committee, and the petition to include wide-ranging climate policy in the charter, now under consideration, will be on the ballot in May 2023 — five months after the November election, which features four city representative races.
City representatives also voted unanimously to direct the city manager to provide a monthly status update on the verification of signatures to Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas.
Ana Fuentes Zueck, the Sunrise El Paso campaign manager, called the compromise a “bittersweet victory.” She said that while the group was disappointed the amendment will not go before the public in November, a May election allows for more time to organize and register voters.
“We had a lot of people within our signature lists that were supportive, but were not registered to vote,” Fuentes Zueck said. “So this break allows us to go back and talk to those 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 of the speakers volunteered for Sunrise El Paso and brought signs that read “This is a climate emergency,” while others urged city representatives to accept the petition.
City Clerk Laura Prine said her office hired a statistician to sample 25% of the submitted signatures for verification, which is allowed under Texas Election Code. Her office estimated the process would take 100 working days to verify the 9,750 sample signatures out of the 39,156 submitted last week. All 9,750 signatures in the sample must be registered voters living within city limits, according to City Attorney Karla Nieman.
Organizers said they submitted 21,065 signatures that were verified using a copy of the voter roll. Prine said her office would possibly use those, after a sample was created by the statistician.
The clerk’s office has eight workers but they are split between validating the petition’s signatures and other duties, Prine said; those duties include posting agendas for public meetings, and verifying applications for candidates in upcoming elections.
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said the city clerk’s office could not hire additional staff, on advice from the city’s legal department. Gonzalez said the city of Austin had been sued for bringing on additional help to verify signatures in a separate charter petition.
When Rep. Isabel Salcido offered the use of her staff for the verification effort, Gonzalez reiterated additional hiring was impossible.
“As we found out, in doing our legal research, another city did that. And the whole process was null and void. Because you cannot do that,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t just add other people. You’ve got to use the city clerk’s office. They’re trained to do this.”
Ground Game Texas founder, Mike Siegel, who is also a former assistant city attorney from Austin, called Gonzalez’s statement “misinformation,” saying the issue was that a city auditor was called on to verify signatures with the city clerk’s office, thus violating the Austin city charter.
“But that does not stop the city clerk from hiring temporary staff or borrowing staff that was, for example, so generously offered 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 that she didn’t have the specifics. She said the practice now, as a result of the lawsuit, within the Austin city clerk’s office is to hire a statistician to help with verification. El Paso adopted a similar method.
She said any additional hires in the city clerk’s office were at Gonzalez’s discretion.
“It’s not about the number of people, it’s the process and the number of signatures that they have to overcome,” she said, adding that using a sample will reduce the workload.
Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, whistles and applause from the crowd punctuated each speaker. At one point, Prine called for “decorum” after people seated in the galley shouted down Nieman’s request to city representatives to enter closed session to offer legal advice, warning that Siegel was not a lawyer for the city.
Commenters called on city representatives 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 “excuses” from city staff.
“My question here today is why are we, yet again, being faced with resistance, when what we are asking for is for you to stand with the people in an increasingly hostile state that does not listen to or represent its constituents,” said Angel Ulloa, a member of Sunrise El Paso.
“Mr. Gonzalez, this is what your contract was extended for.”