(Update) As of Friday afternoon, the Ector County Elections Office says the petition lacks a sufficient number of verified signatures to force a public election on the debt issuance.
An effort by four members of the Odessa City Council to circumvent voter approval to issue $95 million (plus interest) in debt to pay for water infrastructure projects by the City of Odessa met a roadblock at Tuesday’s council meeting when Ector County Republican Party Chairwoman Tisha Crow presented the council with a petition signed by over 3200 residents calling for an election to be held before the city may issue the debt.
The meeting quickly grew tense and heated at times, starting with Councilwoman Mari Willis, who immediately spoke out against the petition and accused the petitioners of gaining signatures under false pretenses, and made other unusual accusations.
“I owe it to the citizens of Odessa to point out that while hopefully the petitions were legitimately obtained, I have to tell this – I was approached by a teenager (to sign the petition) and when I asked what it was for, he said it was to keep taxes from going higher and higher.”
Willis went on launching a variety of accusations to delegitimize the petition, claiming petitioners tried to coerce someone at church into taking a petition to their work, that petitioners were collecting signatures at a public park where loud music was playing making it difficult for people to hear what the petition was about, saying petitioners falsely claimed the petition would keep jobs in Odessa and falsely claimed it would increase taxes.
Crow responded to Willis’s accusations in addressing the council and started by giving the example of an Odessa man who identified as someone who worked in the water industry but had spoken out at a previous council meeting on the debt complaining that the council was looking to throw contracts on the repairs to out of town companies at the expense of local companies that employ local taxpayers such as himself.
Willis began a series of back-and-forth arguments with Crow, responding by saying “they (petitioners) didn’t have any time to explain that they just said keep jobs in Odessa.”
“And that’s possible, but that what he was referring to and so it is correct,” Crow fired back at Willis, further stating, “and I understand you can disagree,” as Willis shook her head.
In addressing the increase in property taxes, Crow responded by asking the council what happens when the increased water rates do not cover the payments on the debt and concluded by saying the debt is guaranteed by property taxes and will be paid back from them and any other revenue the city has.
Councilman Sprawls interjected indicating it will only be paid for with higher water rates, and Mayor Javier Joven weighed in agreeing with Crow in part but added that tapping into property taxes to settle the debt would be in the worst scenario.
The notice to publish debt on the City of Odessa website states that the $95 million in certificates of obligation will be “payable from ad valorem (property) taxes and from a pledge of certain surplus revenues of the City’s water and sewer system.”
Crow also said that she believes the city does need updates to the water infrastructure including the water treatment plant – but what she is asking for is the right to put those needs on the ballot and give people the opportunity to be informed and have a say; adding further that she currently plans to vote for it if given the chance and surmised that her board would as well.
This prompted Councilwoman Detra White to jump into the conversation, criticizing Crow and the Republican Party Executive Committee for petitioning the debt into a public election and for indicating their intent to support the measure should it go to the ballot for a vote.
Crow responded to White saying “we didn’t say we were against it, we said simply want the chance to vote for it”
White shot back at Crow accusing her of lying saying “no you didn’t” and went on saying that the GOP was giving misleading information to the citizens.
White then launched into a heated insults against Crow and the GOP, saying while she had voted Republican all her life, she would not join the Ector County Republican Executive Committee if “her life depended on it” and further said she believes the Party has done “some horrible things.”
Crow quickly quipped in response telling White “I am sorry to say you wouldn’t have been asked to sit on our board Detra, and had you run we would have run someone against you and won.”
Councilman Tom Sprawls then addressed Crow, saying that he had received a text message urging him to sign the petition that was “dishonest”and “disingenuous”apparently because the text indicated that the debt issuance was for $130 million, not $95 million.
Crow pointed out that with interest the City’s own estimate places the total payments at over $130 million, to which Sprawls disagreed, taking the position that interest payments are not debt and that to characterize it as such was “disingenuous.”
The notice to issue debt on the city website states that the “estimated combined principal and interest required to pay the certificate on time and in full is $131,668,250” – well beyond $95 million.
It should be pointed out that the City of Odessa code of ordinances contain a provision governing the conduct of council members and city council meetings, stating in part “[c]ouncil members shall refrain from abusive conduct, or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of other councilmembers, council appointees, boards, and committees, the staff or public.”
The code of conduct also states that in meetings, council members shall prepare themselves for public issues, listen courteously, and among other things, refrain from making personal comments not germane to the business at hand.
But the four council members who supported the debt issuance were not the only ones to use the meeting as an opportunity to go off topic to launch attacks Tuesday evening against the Republican Party and the petitioners.
Ector County Democrat Party Chairwoman Hannah Horick used her time to address the council to begin a lengthy attack on the Ector County GOP– accusing the party of violating state campaign finance laws, “strong-arming elections” among other accusations.
This prompted Mayor Joven to interrupt Horick, asking her to please keep her comments germane to the issue.
Horick then finished her remarks by saying she was bringing up those allegations to establish a “culture that lacks integrity and transparency” and echoed the accusations from the four pro-debt council members that the petitions were obtained by using deceptive practices and concluded with defending certificates of obligation and other remarks on the issue.
State law allows residents to submit a petition signed by at least 5 percent of the registered voters of the city to require any proposed debt issuance to be brought to the voters in a public election before the debt can be issued.
The petition from Crow, containing 3245 signatures must be verified by the Ector County Elections Office before the debt issuance is finally stopped and a public election is held on the issue.
The elections office is expected to determine whether enough valid signatures are on the petition by August 1 and if validated the council will vote to order the issue be added to the November 3 General Election at their August 3 council work session.
(Author’s note: Odessans deserve and expect better behavior of our elected representatives. With so much being said Tuesday evening, our readers are encouraged to take the time and watch the video recording of the meeting linked here to gain a full perspective of what occured.)