By Dave Miller
Killeen Daily Herald
The petitions to recall all seven Killeen City Council members have been filed with the city, but the process continues to raise questions from residents - including some of the officials named on the recall petitions.
Many of the questions involve the wording of the city charter's recall provision, which has never been tested in Killeen's 129-year history.
"We get a new question about the recall just about every day," City Attorney Kathy Davis said last week.
The recall petition drive, launched by Killeen resident Jonathan Okray in response to the City Council's $750,000 buyout of former City Manager Connie Green, drew a total of more than 9,800 signatures. Okray turned in his petitions Tuesday at City Hall, a day ahead of the mandated deadline.
Council members whose petitions contain a sufficient number of valid signatures could face a recall election in November.
But more than one council member questions how the recall would play out, specifically in connection with the May 14 election.
Three of the four members seeking re-election this week - Kenny Wells, Juan Rivera and Ernest Wilkerson are unchallenged in their respective races and were declared elected at a March 22 council meeting.
The move was a technical step needed to cancel the election in their districts, according to Hilary Shine, the city's executive director of public information.
The timing of the declaration raised the question of whether the council members could actually be subject to a recall, since the charter forbids the filing of a recall petition within the first six months after a council member takes office.
But Shine pointed out that the unopposed members don't receive their certificate of election and take the oath of office until after the votes are canvassed for the May 14 election.
Therefore, the recall petition filing is valid, as it pertains to the council members' current terms.
Still, some council members are frustrated about the timing of the recall effort.
Wilkerson, who represents District 4, acknowledged Friday that he found it odd that he could be re-elected to office next week but still be subject to a recall for what he did the previous term.
District 3 Councilwoman JoAnn Purser, who faces two challengers in her bid for re-election, also had questions about how the recall would work if she wins next week.
"I'm not even sure it would apply, but I'm not sure," Purser said.
The city charter requires that the recall petition for each council member contain the signatures of at least 1,050 registered voters - a number that represents 51 percent of the number of votes cast in the last election in which four council members were elected. The last such election was in May 2009.
The signatures must be verified by City Secretary Paula Miller. Once the signatures are confirmed, Miller will present the petitions to the council.
If the numbers are sufficient, the council must then call for a recall election. Failing to do so, a district judge would have that obligation.
According to state law, the next state-authorized date for a recall election would be Nov. 8, a mandated date that supersedes the city charter's call for an election within 60 days of council notification.
'Lots of loopholes'
Legal and procedural questions have surrounded the recall effort since its inception.
The key concern voiced by some council members is the fact that the charter restricts voting in district elections to only those who live within each respective district; yet it allows any of the city's registered voters to sign the recall petition for all district council members.
However, while the charter does allow for a broader base of signers, it also calls for a correspondingly higher number of valid signatures in order for the petition to succeed.
Still, it's a clause that could draw a legal challenge.
The city charter was changed to provide for single-member districts, beginning in 2005. Prior to that, voters in all areas of the city could vote for the district races, as well as the at-large races.
However, the wording of the recall portion of the charter remained unchanged.
"I was told that the recall petition wasn't an election, so that's why everyone can sign," Wells said.
Wells described the recall provision as having "lots of loopholes," but said he has no plans to challenge the recall at the present time.
"I imagine this whole thing may end up before a judge or the Attorney General at some point, but until then I'm just going to do my job as a Killeen city councilman," Wells said.
City Attorney Kathy Davis said she has looked at the charter hundreds of times both before and after the recall issue came up.
"We're going by the black-and-white language on the page," Davis said. "I wouldn't presume to guess whether an adjustment to the language in the recall section would have been approved by the voters in a charter election. We must work with what we've got."
Randall Dillard, of the Texas Secretary of State's office, said last week that there is nothing in state election law that governs recalls, other than the authorized election dates.
"It's strictly a city charter issue," Dillard said. "Any challenges or interpretations would likely be left up to a district judge."
'Motivated by the negative'
Wilkerson, who represents District 4, acknowledged the charter language needs to be cleaned up, at least for future councils.
With a charter review tentatively scheduled for next year, he said this is the perfect time to address the issue.
Still, Wilkerson said he sees the recall process as a good thing overall.
"The recall did what it is supposed to do - make people more responsible and responsive," Wilkerson said. "The people have sent a message and we've heard it. I'm happy about that."
Still, Wilkerson is frustrated that it took a recall to energize the city's electorate.
"If the same number of people who were signing the petition were voting each year, I'd say 'fine,'" Wilkerson said. "But people only seem to be motivated by the negative, and that's sad."
Wells said he thought it was unfair that voters would judge him on one action in the context of five years of work on the council, but he noted, "If the voters choose to recall me, so be it." Wells said his main concern is the potential disruption of city government if several members were recalled.
"I'm worried about the effect on this city," Wells said. "How are we going to move forward? How are we going to get things done and take care of our residents?"
Noting his grandfather wrote the city charter in 1947, Wells said, "In those days, 80 percent of the people voted, so getting enough signatures (for a recall) was difficult. It was meant to be a high bar. But now, with 2 or 3 percent of the residents voting, things have changed."
For Killeen council members, as well as the recall petition drive's organizer, it's now a waiting game as the signatures are verified.
Okray isn't taking anything for granted regarding the outcome.
In addition to turning his petitions in early, he has made photocopies of each sheet at a cost of $300.
"It was worth it for the peace of mind," Okray said. "It's priceless."
He also obtained voter rolls from Bell County so he can conduct his own verification process of the petition signatures.
Okray expressed concern that Miller won't have anyone helping her verify signatures at City Hall, noting that she told him that since the city is in the middle of a municipal election, the verification process could take some time.
"How long it might take concerns me," Okray said. "But it's more important to be accurate."
Even after the number of valid signatures is known, however, it's likely that several questions about the recall will remain.
"This is all new for the city," Davis said. "We're just trying to address each question as it comes."
Contact Dave Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7543. Follow him on Twitter at KDHopinion.