Something’s got to give in the battle over local marijuana laws.
A controversial ordinance to decriminalize misdemeanor amounts of pot in Killeen and Harker Heights — approved by a large majority of voters — has been amended in one city and repealed in the other.
The actions have resulted in a threatened lawsuit regarding Killeen’s ordinance and the possibility of a recall election over Harker Heights officials’ rejection of its voter-approved marijuana ordinance.
How did we get to this point?
Citing a conflict with state law, the Harker Heights City Council voted to repeal that city’s marijuana ordinance on Nov. 22, but on Dec. 12 was presented with a referendum petition seeking to reverse the city’s action.
And although the Killeen City Council subsequently amended Killeen’s ordinance — removing the ban on police using the smell of marijuana as the basis for an arrest or citation — the city is now facing a potential lawsuit by Bell County over the measure, which both the district attorney and county attorney view as illegal.
Last week, the drama intensified further, as the Harker Heights City Council voted to reject the referendum petition to rescind the council’s ordinance repealing Proposition A, which now will send the issue back to the voters in May.
If a majority of voters back the petition request at the ballot box, the city’s repeal will be rolled back and the original Proposition A will be restored.
However, Proposition A’s supporters and its opponents at Harker Heights City Hall are in disagreement over what happens between now and the May election.
Ground Game Texas, the Austin-based progressive organization that initiated the push for the decriminalization measure, asserts that the Harker Heights city charter calls for the council’s repeal ordinance to be suspended in the interim, effectively keeping Proposition A in effect for the next four months.
Harker Heights officials disagree. City Manager David Mitchell told the Herald last week, “Prop A and the referendum petition both seek a local action for something that is solely within the authority of the state. The city fully recognizes that 64% of voters in the November election desired to pass Prop A. However, the city does not have the authority to pass regulations inconsistent with state law. Prop A remains repealed and the city continues to follow all state laws.”
After hearing that Heights officials intended to keep Prop A off the books, Bell County Commissioner Louie Minor of Killeen — an advocate for Proposition A who helped to work for its passage — said he expects the next step by organizers would be to initiate a recall of Harker Heights council members.
Asked to address Minor’s comment, Mitchell told the Herald the city would not respond “to the potential threat of action by others.”
At any rate, a recall of city officials would be a fairly high bar to achieve.
Whereas organizers only needed the signatures of 348 registered voters for the referendum petition, a recall initiative would require 694 verified signatures — or 51% of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last regular municipal election, which in this case is May 2021. Organizers would have 30 days to collect the signatures from the day they filed an affidavit with the city.
Still, Minor expressed confidence that they could round up the required signatures for a recall election. About 5,200 Harker Heights residents voted in favor of Proposition A in November.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
The county could file its lawsuit — authorized by the Commissioners Court on Dec. 22 — against the city of Killeen. As of last week, it was still in process in the county attorney’s office. Once the filing takes place, a judge could rule quickly in the case. However, the outcome is less than certain.
Though a judge hearing the case could conceivably agree with the county that Proposition A conflicts with state law, it’s possible the judge could side with organizers who contend that home rule gives cities the authority to approve and enforce the ordinance.
It’s also possible that a judge could dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that the county lacks jurisdiction or “standing” to object to a municipality’s statutes.
Whichever way a judge ultimately rules, it could be a turning point in the ongoing battle, although any court decision is likely to be appealed to a higher court.
To date, Ground Game Texas has successfully crafted similar ballot measures in Austin, Denton, Elgin and San Marcos. Only the Harker Heights City Council has repealed its initiative ordinance.
If a judge were to rule that the Killeen ordinance goes against state law and is unenforceable, similar ordinances in the other cities where the proposition passed would be in jeopardy. In fact, the entire Ground Game effort, which launched a new initiative in San Antonio last week, could come to a halt.
In the eyes of many Proposition A opponents, that would be the best possible outcome.
In fact, what has angered many local residents about the Prop A initiative is that it was instigated by an external organization, with activists coming in from out of town to push for its passage. Ground Game’s plan to cherry-pick cities across the state where the ordinance stood a good chance of passage — chiefly military communities and college towns — has also drawn criticism from some local officials who oppose the measure.
A court decision finding that the ordinance is a violation of state law would potentially put an end to the current Ground Game strategy.
It also might focus the organization’s efforts on the state Legislature, where action could result in a change in state law that would make individual cities’ ordinances unnecessary.
For local Prop A supporters who went to the polls in good faith in November, it is unfortunate that they may not have had all the facts on the issue.
Harker Heights City Councilman Michael Blomquist stressed that argument at Tuesday’s council meeting: “Yes, this initiative ordinance passed with 64% of the vote, but Ground Game Texas and other external operatives misled voters that their votes on a local municipal ordinance can set aside state law. This resulted in voters voting in an effort that was entirely null per state law.”
Far too much time, money and emotions have been spent on this issue since it first surfaced last spring. What was at first perceived by some as a minor initiative has tied up elected officials, angered residents on both sides of the issue and caused a dangerous rift in our community.
It’s time for the courts to bring a decisive resolution to this contentious battle.
We simply can’t afford any more casualties.