Local residents got their chance to weigh in on the proposed ordinance to decriminalize low levels of marijuana in Killeen on Tuesday — and nearly two dozen of them seized the opportunity.
A total of 22 speakers went to the microphone to say their piece about the proposed measure, with about half of them favoring the ordinance and about half of them opposed.
In Killeen, the public hearing lasted well over an hour as one resident after another stepped up to give their four-minute pitches to the City Council.
In neighboring Harker Heights, 11 people spoke during a public hearing on a similar ordinance Tuesday — and again the sentiment was about evenly split, with five favoring the measure and six opposed.
After the residents had their say at the Killeen’s public hearing, the City Council voted to reject the ordinance by a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Ramon Alvarez absent.
In Harker Heights, council members disapproved the ordinance by a 4-0 vote, with Councilwoman Lynda Nash absent.
But for opponents of the ordinance, the councils’ votes to reject the measure were anything but a victory.
That’s because both cities’ charters require that the respective city councils move an ordinance forward for a public vote if the council either rejects or modifies the ordinance — provided the petition advocating for the ordinance has the required number of valid signatures.
In other words, both councils had basically two choices: Either approve the ordinances outright or give the public the opportunity to decide in the fall.
Politically, there wasn’t much question as to where each council would stand.
Harker Heights’ city attorney advised council members that they should not approve the petition, since it conflicts with state law — an argument also raised during Tuesday’s public hearing.
Likewise, Killeen Assistant City Attorney Asha Pender advised council members in her introductory remarks that the staff recommended disapproval of the ordinance on the same grounds.
So Killeen’s council members voted unanimously to disapprove the ordinance, even though two of the members who voted “no” had signed the petition to bring the ordinance to the council in the first place.
It’s not out of the question to speculate that a fall vote on the issue is what the petition’s supporters wanted all along.
In fact, one of the petition’s organizers, Louie Minor, urged the council to reject the petition and let the voters decide the issue in the fall. That’s significant, since Minor is the Democratic candidate for the Precinct 4 Bell County commissioner’s seat.
No doubt, many Democrats may be counting on the marijuana initiative to spur turnout in the Nov. 8 election.
In fact, Ground Game Texas, the Progressive Democrat-based organization that pressed the petition drive in several Texas cities, went so far as to call the marijuana ordinance their “secret weapon” in the fall campaign to boost Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke past Republican incumbent Greg Abbott in the governor’s race.
In addition to Killeen and Harker Heights, marijuana enforcement ordinances will be on the ballot in Denton, San Marcos and Elgin.
Both Denton and San Marcos are college towns, so it’s apparent which voters Ground Game Texas is targeting in those cities.
However, the organization may be miscalculating in its assessment of the electorate in Killeen and Harker Heights.
Certainly, the measure has its supporters, many with good points about the drug’s use for pain relief by veterans, and the need to remove the stigma from young people who inadvertently get caught up in a marijuana-related traffic stop.
However, given the impassioned, vocal opposition from some of the speakers at Killeen’s public hearing, passage of the marijuana ordinance in the city is far from a given.
Residents who have come out against the proposed ordinance have expressed concern that it would tie police officers’ hands and encourage drug use and sales, particularly among the city’s youth.
Another talking point for the ordinance’s opponents has been the fact that the measure conflicts with state law. Low-level possession of marijuana would still be considered a misdemeanor crime under state law, but the ordinance would preclude law enforcement officers from arresting or citing anyone found in violation.
The state Constitution states: “No charter or any ordinance passed under said charter shall contain any provision inconsistent with the Constitution of the State or of the general laws enacted by the Legislature of this State.
However, that article only applies to laws that are passed — and in this case, that would have to come later, at the hands of the voters.
Harker Heights City Manager David Mitchell, in a call to the Herald on Friday, noted that the City Council is obligated, both the by city charter and state law, to follow the petition process as stipulated. That means, the council was doing its job — first in accepting the legitimate petition, then in voting down the proposed ordinance, if it is believed to be unlawful, and finally in moving it forward to the voters.
Mitchell said it’s possible the city could have faced legal challenges — even from the attorney general’s office — if the council had tried to kill the ordinance and not move it to the ballot.
Ultimately, Mitchell said, it’s possible that if the ordinance wins approval in the November election, the City Council could subsequently consider amending or rescinding it on the basis of its being unconstitutional.
Needless to say, the marijuana decriminalization ordinance has become a hot topic with local residents, many of whom have expressed strong sentiments on both sides of the issue — as they did at Tuesday night’s public hearings.
For now, the proposed ordinance is moving forward.
As the election draws near, it will be interesting to see what kind of information wars develop in the lead-up to November.
In the next 98 days, residents owe it to themselves to not only research the intricacies of the law but also examine how its passage might impact the community as a whole.
If the ordinance is primarily being put forward to boost voter turnout, that’s a shame — especially if its presence on the ballot detracts from the attention residents should be paying to important local, state and national races.
Still, the proposed ordinance shouldn’t be shrugged off or taken lightly.
It could bring about a serious change in the law — and it could also carry serious consequences.
The time to study and debate this issue is now.