For a month and a half, the Killeen City Council has considered amendments to every page of the city charter, a process expected to reshape the legal structure of the city.
Many of the substantive and most debated changes will alter how residents in Killeen recall their elected officials.
As written, the charter strips the city of much of its authority to regulate a recall, something city staff knows all too well after 2011, when five council members were removed through a recall election.
As a result, the council — under advice of city lawyers — has proposed hundreds of relatively unsubstantial changes, which will update the charter language and eliminate redundancies and potential legal loopholes.
“One of the main reasons for doing this is because of the confusion over the recall last summer,” Mayor Dan Corbin said. “But if we are going to do it, we have to decide whether to just do it halfway or go ahead and revisit the entire document.”
The council must pass a resolution establishing the ballot language by Feb. 12, for submission to the U.S. Department of Justice, if it wants to hold the charter election in May. All changes to the document must be approved by voters.
Public hearings designated for residents to weigh in on the process are tentatively scheduled for January, a city spokesperson said.
The current consensus of the council is to change the charter so that only residents of single-member districts can sign recall petitions and vote in a recall election, although the agreement is far from unanimous.
During last year’s recall, registered voters from all over the city were allowed to sign the petitions. It was an interpretation of the present charter language that became a sticking point for several single-district council members and their supporters.
Throughout the charter review process, Corbin has proposed returning to a municipal government, which the city had before 2005, that requires four of the seven council members to represent and live in one of the four city wards, but allows all residents to vote for them.
Although Corbin has been undecided over these substantial changes, he said the pre-2005 government would simplify many of the issues that complicated the 2011 recall. So far the council has agreed not to put it on the ballot.
Councilman Terry Clark said he supports maintaining single-member districts in the city, as established in 2005. “As the community grows, the concept of a district will become more and more important,” he said.
Clark gave the example of his own District 3 residents contacting him to push for more water infrastructure in that area of the city.
“Residents can call their council member and tell them what they want,” Clark said. “That’s how it is supposed to work and that’s how it is working now.”
The proposed changes to the charter limit who can sign recall petitions and who can vote in a recall election.
In 2011, the recall language in the charter was read closely by the city’s legal staff, residents and Corbin, a prominent local lawyer who became intimately involved in the recall legalities.
Revising these sections is much of the impetus for the charter review because key sections of the charter, those regarding the recall process, were not consistent with the amendments establishing district council representation in 2005.
At the time, most residents were not thinking about a recall.
The council’s current proposal is to limit the process for recalling district council members to residents in the district they represent.
During the 2011 recall, all registered voters in the city were allowed to sign the recall petitions and vote in the recall election.
If approved, the new proposal will shrink the number of required signatures on the recall petitions for district council members, while shrinking the pool of residents allowed to sign them.
Council members are debating whether the change will make district council members more or less vulnerable to recall.
Corbin said he thought it would make it easier to recall council members because the number of signatures required would be very small, in some cases as few as 185 signatures.
However, by making the signatures specific to the districts, problems arise in how the city determines the number of signatures required for a recall election.
As it is written now, the number of signatures is based on “at least 51 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last municipal election at which four councilmen were elected.”
The proposal is to tie this language to district races for district recall petitions.
But if those races go uncontested for many years it would skew the numbers and the resulting number may not be an accurate reflection of a district’s population.
Corbin, still undecided on the issue, agreed the process could be greatly simplified if the number was determined through a percentage of the number of registered voters in each district, as is the case in Copperas Cove.
But Corbin, who does not vote on council matters, has not had the support to put these options on the ballot.
E pluribus unum
Clark disagrees with the council’s current proposal to limit recall petitions.
He said when a council member commits an offense worthy of recall, it affects all residents.
If the city votes to limit who can sign the petitions, three-fourths of the city would not be allowed to weigh in on the recall of district council members.
“When the council conducts a vote, whether it is three to four, or seven to zero, their decisions affect the entire community. Every citizen should have the opportunity to sign a petition of recall,” Clark said.
Acts of individuals
Councilman Jose Segarra said a lot of the signatures on the recall petition for former District 2 councilman Juan Rivera did not come from his district.
Segarra said the majority of the constituents in his district did not want Rivera recalled.
Rivera did not vote in favor of the resolution that approved the $750,000 buyout of former City Manager Connie Green, which led to the 2011 recall.
“He voted against it,” Segarra said. “He did the right thing and yet he was kicked out.”
Segarra argues that the system needs to provide only those who vote a council member into office with the ability to take him out. “It gives people that opportunity to focus on that individual, instead of, ‘Get rid of everybody because I’m unhappy with everybody.’”
Over the past half century, many state laws have been created that supersede laws set forth in the Killeen city charter, originally written in 1949.
As a result, city lawyers advised council members to eliminate many of the laws from the charter that are now covered in the state constitution.
Clark has cautioned the council to slow down in its slashing of the document. “We have been going at this with a chainsaw, but now we have to get out the scalpel and make sure we are doing our job carefully.”
Clark believes the large number of changes may be difficult for voters to understand when the ballot initiatives appear in May.
Corbin has maintainted that, however challenging it may be to read the laws, an overhaul is necessary to fix the broken document. “I think the public is often a lot smarter than we give them credit for. But it’s our duty to make it understandable by the public.”
Contact Brandon Janes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7552