A Tale of Two Certificates of Obligation
It was the OK of times, it was the worst of times. During the intense heat of Summer 2020 in South Texas, COVID restrictions limited the citizens ability to socialize, enjoy recreational activities and open their small businesses fully to the public. The citizenry was still recovering from Hurricane Harvey; it was unknown if our children would go to school, attend virtually or a combination of both; and hoping the riots of the major cities did not come to sleepy little Aransas County.
Enter the government budgeting process. While attending a Commissioners’ Court meeting on Jul 27, 2020, Andrew Kane found out about the Certificate of Obligation (CO) Resolution issued by the County to pay for, among other things, a new County Courthouse. He did some research where he also found the City had issued a Certificate of Obligation to pay for, among other things, the new City Hall.
This large of an expenditure (not to exceed $24.25M for the County and $20.75M for the City) really should be voted on by the citizens! Mr. Kane spoke with like-minded citizens who collectively decided to petition to have these CO’s go to a vote.
This group started with the County CO petition on August 1. The more they communicated with the voters, the more people joined the movement and signed the petition.
Comments heard by signature collectors were very revealing. “We need to stop the good ole boys’ network.” “Why do we need a three story Courthouse?” “We need a permanent Courthouse but for that much?” The list goes on and on. The petitioners kept on collecting signatures and listening to the people. The County Judge and County Commissioners were invited to come out and listen to and speak with those signing the petition, but none of them attended.
Some of the comments by the Judge and Commissioners were also revealing. Paraphrasing, they will never get enough signatures; there were no petitions in the past for CO’s; who really cares what the citizens think; the citizens need to get involved in the Commissioner Court meetings. Many citizens are interested in being more involved, but the Commissioners’ Court meets at 9AM when most of the citizenry is at work.
As it got closer to the August 17 deadline to put initiatives on the November 3 ballot, the county saw the writing on the wall and called a Special Meeting on August 17 to sign an order to have a general bond election put on the ballot. The initiative would have the voters vote on three of the several issues on the CO with first and foremost being the Courthouse.
With the number of signatures acquired being more than enough, the County Judge and Commissioners voted 5-0 to sign the order to put three bond propositions on the ballot. The citizens successfully petitioned the County so they could vote on this major spending issue.
When the petitioners gave the petition to the Elections Administrator’s Office on August 20, they obtained over 1,100 signatures. The petitioners accomplished their first goal.
The group had decided during the second week of August it would be prudent to also petition the City to put their CO on the ballot and let the citizens vote. This petition was on a short deadline as the end of the petition period was August 18. To assist the City in possibly get a bond issue on the November ballot, the organizers communicated with the Mayor of their intent to get the required 312 signatures and hand them to the City Secretary’s Office by close of business on August 17. City leaders felt there was no way the signatures would be obtained.
True to their word, the organizers handed the City Secretary on August 17 the petition which had almost 500 signatures. Instead of listening to the organizers and City Councilman Bob Cunningham who came out to talk to the people, the City leadership did not set a special meeting for August 17 but decided to go with the original meeting of August 18 to vote on the Certificate of Obligation.
During the August 18 meeting, where the only issue was the CO, the Mayor proceed to inform the Council, once the signatures were verified halfway during the meeting, there were enough signatures to force to the CO to a bond election. Also during this meeting, the Mayor spoke to how the citizens did not understand, how they messed things up and how they were ignorant of the process. He called the petitioners Five Percenters among other things.
In usual government fashion, a Special Meeting of the City Council was called for on Monday August 31. The announcement was published on the City’s website at 5:15PM on Friday August 28. The meeting had three items – Call to Order, Deliberate and Act to issue a Tax Note for $14.72M (a tax note does not have an option for citizen input) and then Adjourn.
At this meeting, the Mayor, due to COVID restrictions, read 28 remarks from citizens and two citizens spoke via Zoom. There was much discussion with the City’s financial advisor and bond counsel. Many of the remarks made by the Council, Advisor and Counsel were condescending to those who chose to question. Three of the Four City Councilpersons did not ask questions but did make remarks. Some of their remarks where that the people’s opinion was not important while the fourth Councilperson, Bob Cunningham, asked pointed questions about the Tax Note, servicing this debt and other citizen concerns.
Two hours later, the Mayor called for a vote. The vote was 4-1 for the Tax Note with Councilman Bob Cunningham being the dissenting vote. To paraphrase, he believed the citizens had exercised their rights and should be heard on this issue.
The petitioners had attained their second goal of requiring a bond initiative on the ballot for the CO but failed in that the City voted to issue a Tax Note instead. The will of the people was circumvented by four of the five Council members.
Birth of a Movement
What is this group of citizens doing now? After emotions had been calmed and everyone had a chance to think, the leaders of this movement are going to ensure the entire electorate has accurate facts about the County’s bond initiative. They are also working to continue their effort to awaken the City and County electorate by Educating to Defeat Complacency.