Several Killeen councilmembers weighed in with their reactions after a former councilman threatened to recall the group if they didn’t vote in favor of a contract for redistricting services Tuesday.
During public comment of a regularly scheduled council meeting Tuesday, former City Councilman Jonathan Okray told council if they didn’t vote to enter into an interlocal agreement with the law firm Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta for redistricting services, he would issue a recall referendum.
In government, a recall is an election held that allows voters to remove officials from office before their term expires, and several years ago, Okray did just that.
Back in 2011, Okray started a petition drive to recall the entire city council over a $750,000 buyout of a contract of then-City Manager Connie Green. The former councilman’s petition resulted in five councilmembers being removed by voters.
Okray then filed as a candidate and served three terms on the Killeen council from 2012 to 2018.
On Tuesday, council approved an interlocal contract with Bickerstaff to perform redistricting services for their voting boundaries. The contract will cost the city $27,190. The vote was 6-1, with councilwoman Mellisa Brown voting against the contract. Brown had urged council to look into other options, such as getting the same services through Texas A&M University, potentially for free.
During public comment, before the council voted, Okray threatened to recall the entire city council if they didn’t approve the contract.
“None of you have the experience to do it on your own,” Okray said Tuesday. “Don’t even try to do it. You guys are having problems with meeting quorum. If you don’t do this, I will file a recall referendum, and I will use it.”
Since then, the Killeen Daily Herald has reached out to city council members about their reaction and received responses from several members.
“The current city council is doing an excellent job of working together to move the city forward.” Killeen Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Nash-King said in an email received Thursday. “I was disappointed with his (Okray’s) behavior because he showed no respect for the position he once held before moving out of the city. I would hope that in the future; he would work with the council to bring positive solutions to make our city even better.”
“It is my hope that others do not mistake the words or actions of this particular citizen as a precedent for any situation including the one on which he spoke,” Councilman Rick Williams said. “The Council will not be influenced or intimidated in any way, shape, or fashion while conducting the business of the citizens of the city of Killeen.
“Citizen Comments are already a precedent. Hopefully, people continue to voice their opinion to us,” Councilman Ken Wilkerson replied. “Although his words had absolutely no impact that I could see, maybe one day he will provide a perspective we can use.”
Councilwoman Nina Cobb said, “Upon hearing Mr. Okray’s comments my immediate thoughts were the following: “There is no greater service than to be in Public Service to serve District 3 and the City of Killeen. Myself as well as fellow Council and City Staff strives to give the Best Service. In previous workshops, which are open to the public, this item of discussion was discussed. It did not appear to my understanding that it was not going to pass; questions were ask and statements made but only for clarity.
“The (Council) Chambers are accepting of Public comments ... everyone has the right to speak, however sometimes standing at the podium can incite excitement in the speaker. The First Amendment allows us freedoms but not allows you to try and scare, bully or intimidate anyone, more specific making one believe that you will cause harm,” Cobb said.
“I was disappointed in the comments. It alerts you to watch your surroundings and guard yourself but did not move me to change my previously stated comment or move in another direction.
“We have not discussed the speaker’s comments. However, I would urge any speaker to maybe take a different tone, to not lose their passion, but leave your threat at home,” said Cobb, who asked for her entire statement to be printed.
Councilwoman Jessica Gonzalez said, “I respect any citizen’s right to voice their concerns, and freedom of speech. In this current political climate passions and tensions may run high. It is my hope that our citizens continue to engage in dialogue and freely express their desires in a way that is clear, concise,” Gonzalez said. “Ultimately this should take place in a way that is non threatening or in an intimidating manner. It is important to me to know where our constituents stand, but it’s my hope that any discussions, or conversations had are in a professional and courteous manner.”
Councilwoman Brown, who gave the sole vote against the contract, also commented on Okray’s address.
“Mr. Okray has the right by charter to initiate a recall process on any elected city official who is at least six months into their term. If the vote on paying for a consultant to guide us through redistricting is a matter Mr. Okray deems as a recallable offense, then I respect his rights and opinion on the matter,” Brown said Thursday in an email. “Council members are reminded by voters on a regular basis that we can be recalled. The only reason Mr. Okray’s reminder was unique is the setting. Ultimately I personally continue to vote consistently with what I believe is best for the City and how the majority of the citizens who voted for me to represent them would like me to vote. As long as it is not a personal threat issued toward an individual or a threat of violence, it is free speech protected by the First Amendment.”
Councilman Michael Boyd said he respectfully declined to comment.
The Herald reached out to Mayor Jose Segarra, but did not receive a response.
KDH also contacted Okray with his thoughts in the aftermath of the vote.
“As far as the magnitude of the consideration, I assert that the collective body of the council does not possess the cognitive abilities (analytical and evaluative) to assure redrawing of boundaries in compliance with state and federal law,” Okray said. “Neither is staff specialized to carry out this work in concert with council. Therefore, it was prudent for the council to contract with an agency experienced and capable of doing the job, doing it in a timely and efficient manner, with certainty.”
Okray said seeking services from Texas A&M University-Central Texas would not have sufficed in this matter and that he maintains a means-tested, research-based philosophy and approach, rather than an approach based on feelings.
“I do not think that looking into services through A&M would have been enough. In fact, I believe A&M would have offered the services, its assistance to the city, if it were capable of doing so, given the tenured relationship between the city and has the university. In the past, A&M has provided services to the city such as services rendered and regarding the 2030 Vision Plan.” Okray said. “We did not hear a single solitary word from A&M regarding its ability to provide the service: we only had the word of the sole vote AGAINST the service. That sole vote against the service is target rich for provisions of the City Charter, Article X. Stay tuned.”
Council members have questioned Okray’s behaviors in the past.
In 2016, a council workshop went sideways when Okray threatened to kill fellow Councilmember Richard Young, after Young told Okray, “screw you,” according to Young.
He also kept loudly interrupting Councilman Jim Kilpatrick, by calling points to order through Segarra during a meeting in 2017.
Segarra fell under scrutiny for not maintaining decorum as a presiding officer of the council. Segarra, at the time, said the mayor’s role was to promote free discussion during meetings despite the passion of council members.
City rules allow presiding officers to expel a council member if they are deemed to be acting uncivil.