As Americans overwhelmingly lose confidence in and patience with government, Texans are no exception. And as Texans, by nature, are rarely quiet about their discontentment, it’s no surprise to see Lone Star State communities taking action against officials or entities seen as violating public trust. Central Texas has Killeen city council members facing a recall election and Williamson County officials under scrutiny on numerous fronts. Such actions are far from isolated, however, as news reports this week tell of El Paso residents seeking to recall their mayor and two other officials while Bexar County activists cite the city of San Antonio and their county as needing serious reform.
On Nov. 8, Killeen voters will decide whether or not to recall five of their current city council members . All seven originally faced recall, but one lost a re-election bid while another resigned earlier this summer. The recall is in response to the council’s $750,000 buyout of former City Manager Connie Green’s contract – an amount far exceeding contractual terms – and subsequent resistance to providing outraged taxpayers a credible explanation.
Controversy surrounds many aspects of this recall including the months-long wait until the Nov. 8 uniform election date. With almost eight weeks until the election, local watchdog group Killeen Tax Payers for Responsible and Accountable Government is mounting an effort to help voters recall why they’re having a recall. The group says that “whether delays, distractions and denials have effectively quelled voter outrage” remains to be seen. And with weeks to go, legal games and political maneuverings could still be ahead. Meanwhile, KTPRAG’s focus will be to serve voter interests by offering regular updates on issues and activities related to the election.
And maneuvering does indeed occur – ask Pastor Tom Brown of El Paso. Earlier this week, El Paso Mayor John Cook filed a temporary restraining order that banned Brown from submitting petitions seeking the recall of Cook and city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. The order was granted by County Court at Law 3 Judge Javier Alvarez.
In November 2010, El Paso voters approved 55 percent to 45 percent an ordinance to make “health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.” The measure, upheld by a U.S. District Court judge in May, was overturned in June when the El Paso City Council vote split 4-4 over restoring health benefits to gay and unmarried partners of city employees. Mayor Cook cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of restoring the benefits, a move counter to the will of the people as expressed in the November election.
Some characterize this issue as a battle between the religious and gay rights communities, others see it as a blatant affront to our democratic process. A day after signing the order that functionally stopped the recall, Alvarez has reversed his own decision . Per NewsChannel 9, “The judge said he didn’t feel comfortable getting in the way of an election so he changed a court order that just yesterday brought the process to a halt. Now, Pastor Tom Brown and his supporters are free to drop off those signed recall petitions at city hall tomorrow.”
As in Killeen, El Paso residents see that making your vote count or your voice heard isn’t always a simple process. And county governments aren’t bastions of taxpayer friendliness either.
A recent column described Williamson County as ” government sans – or without – sense on the San Gabriel .” The piece went on to discuss a year of highly publicized and questionable actions causing the Williamson County Commissioners Court to be viewed by many taxpayers as being without a sense of 1) accountability over use of public dollars; 2) transparency as “no comment” wears thin in response to legitimate questions; and 3) respect for those who put them in office.
Questions concerning the county government’s culture of corruption, pattern of misconduct, abuse of public trust and disregard for taxpayer interests continue to surface. Concerns extend into criminality with situations like the Michael Morton murder case in which a potentially innocent man has been in prison for nearly 25 years while a killer presumably walks free.
Though traditional media sources have only superficially touched on the troubling patterns of conduct and relationships of parties involved, The Wilco Watchdog is rapidly gaining popularity as citizen journalists bring transparency to a government that has in the past operated largely unchallenged and with little scrutiny. The 2012 primaries will likely be the first show of the influence resulting from this new visibility.
And per the San Antonio Express-News, the San Antonio Tea Party is also looking to ” reform local government’s political culture. ” The article cites the Bexar County Commissioners Court as supporting a new VIA plan that will cost taxpayers despite a 2000 county referendum on light rail which voters soundly rejected. Concern is understandable as County Judge Nelson Wolff has stated that he “doesn’t need someone to tell him what’s good or not,” a position that clearly calls issues like accountability and taxpayer responsiveness into question.
And on the municipal side, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro’s proposal to extend employee benefits to domestic partners is an issue that, as in El Paso, raises “serious questions about local government leaders’ respect for voters.” The mayor’s SA2020 plans, a measure that calls for downtown development yet doesn’t elaborate on costs, is attracting attention. The Tea Party says “the planning process has not included suburban, county or regional input, and there are concerns about the tools to implement the project, such as eminent domain.”
The San Antonio Tea Party states its position as that “county and city elected officials work for the voters and therefore should represent and carry out the ‘will of the people.’ The mayor, City Council, and county judge and commissioners are trusted servants of the people and must listen to their voices.”
Williamson County, Bexar County, cities like Killeen and El Paso – the concerns and messages are the same. Elected officials not wanting to participate in a voter-driven political process should look to opportunities outside public service – and preferably venues with no ties to public funds.
It’s an exciting time to see these independent efforts promoting common values and goals which historically have helped make our country and our state strong. These are examples deserving commendation and worthy of following. So, what’s your next step?