The steady stream of people showing up Monday morning for early voting in Killeen could portend that the five month delay in holding the city council recall election has neither dimmed peoples’ memories nor curbed their interest in this hot-button issue. The ballot, however, is bringing one surprise that seems another example of governmental self-protectionist tactics trumping any apparent obligation toward protecting taxpayer interests – the very issue that prompted the recall election!
Five Killeen city council members currently face recall. This election stems from action taken last spring when the council first voted to spend $750,000 buying out the employment contract of former City Manager Connie Green and then resisted providing a credible explanation to outraged taxpayers.
Motivated by the council’s lack of transparency and non-responsiveness to taxpayer concerns, Killeen resident Jonathan Okray initiated a petition drive to force a recall election. Okray worked with city officials to learn the rules and procedures associated with this effort. Based on Okray’s efforts, all seven council members initially faced recall, but one was defeated in a May re-election bid and another has since resigned leaving the fate of five remaining council members – at-large council members Larry Cole, Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Cosper and Billy Workman plus district members Kenny Wells and Juan Rivera – to be determined.
At the recall petition drive’s onset, Okray had to identify the number of petition signatures needed for each city council member and who would be eligible to sign each petition. Killeen’s seven member council comprises four district and three at-large members.
“When starting the petition effort, the city of Killeen first said that residents could only sign petitions for their district council member along with the three at-large members,” Okray said. “After we questioned the signature threshold, the city reversed their prior position and said that all residents were eligible to sign any or all petitions.”
Deeming residents eligible to sign petitions to recall any or all council members suggests an opportunity to vote for recalling any or all would follow. Instead, current ballots offer all voters the opportunity to recall the three at-large council members – Larry Cole, Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Cosper and Billy Workman – while the remaining two district council members facing recall – Kenny Wells and Juan Rivera – will only be voted on within their districts.
Continuity is important and lacking in this process. And whether by accident or design, this void could significantly alter the entire recall effort. Here’s how. Okray was told he needed 1,050 signatures per council member. This number was derived per city charter language which says a valid petition contains signatures of 51% of the total qualified electors in the last election of four council members.
With that, city officials used the 2,057 votes cast in the May 2009 city election as the basis for Okray’s 1,050 signature threshold. With this basis, the city created a reasonable expectation that use of citywide numbers positioned this as a citywide recall effort and further reasons that citizens would be eligible to vote for recall of any or all council members without consideration given to the district in which they reside.
If this is not the case – which based on the current ballot, it’s not – Okray characterizes the 1,050 threshold as “ambitious and astronomically inflated by the city, but achieved nonetheless.” Instead, Okray contends, signature thresholds proportional to the total votes cast per council member should have been used.
Again, it’s about consistency. If you use total votes cast as a basis for petition signatures to recall all council members, then all voters should be allowed to vote for all council members. If you use each members’ individual vote total, then voters should be allowed to vote for the at-large members and their respective district member.
What difference does this really make? These council members were elected in some cases with voting totals in the hundreds, not thousands. If the total votes cast for a district council member was 413, 51% equates to 211 valid signatures needed to recall that council member – quite a difference from 1,050.
The election ballot now precluding voters from weighing in on recalling all the council positions renders some voters’ petition signatures meaningless. It also positions district council members in potentially “safer” electoral environments than their at-large counterparts.
“This entire situation is a result of inconsistencies in the city charter,” Okray said. “A lack of continuity within the 2005 process which established the four council districts and three at-large positions is now working to the advantage of council members Wells and Rivera. This is not the first time the city has changed the rules along the way.”
A likely outcome of this election configuration is that the limited voting base will allow the two district members to avoid recall while all three at-large members will be ousted from office. This would leave four members intact, allow the council to maintain its quorum and “business as usual” would resume.
Killeen voters responded to the recall petitions out of frustration with city council members seemingly more attuned to their own agendas than to taxpayer interests. In a city with a history of resisting accountability to taxpayers, might this ballot issue be another cause for concern? It’s a fair question and one that will be answered soon enough as early voting continues ahead of the Nov. 8 election.