Streetcar Petition: Spirit or letter of the law?
By Mark Reagan
on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 at 6:24 PM
Streetcar Vote Coalition spokesman Greg Brockhouse speaks to media after the city clerk ruled the group's petition didn't have enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot.
The streetcar petition did have enough valid signatures to make the November ballot, but it didn’t have enough circulator affidavits to back those signatures up.
City Clerk Leticia Vacek said during the City Council B Session Wednesday that the streetcar petition garnered 12,138 valid votes and 8,861 votes that were valid, but did not contain circulator affidavits. And because of those missing circulator affidavits, Vacek said the petition couldn’t be placed on the ballot.
Vacek said she based the decision on City Attorney Robert F. Greenblum’s opinion that the 8,861 votes should have a circulator affidavit proving that those voters were from San Antonio.
On July 8, the Streetcar Vote Coalition, which opposes the Downtown streetcar project that’s been sidelined by interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, turned 26,739 signatures into the city clerk’s office. The petition sought to bring a public vote for streetcar or light rail projects.
Streetcar Vote Coalition spokesman Greg Brockhouse said after the city clerk’s presentation that Vacek didn’t mention a Secretary of State email to her office that allegedly said the petition did not need the circulator affidavits. According to Brockhouse, the petition gathered 20,999 valid signatures and the petition to change the city charter to require a vote on streetcar or light rail should be on the November ballot.
“We waited for 10 days and find out here today that some members of the city council have chosen to invalidate almost 9,000 voices. So when you’ve got 9,000 voices, what you’re doing is disenfranchising people and saying their votes, their concerns about our city government don’t matter,” Brockhouse said. “And we’ve got the perception that the city council doesn’t know what the process is about. And they’ve set the bar so high that citizens can’t take control of their own government. It’s going to be a very difficult process here on out and we may very well be going to court with this.”
On Wednesday, the Streetcar Vote Coalition sent a letter to the city clerk demanding the measure be placed on the November ballot and threatening litigation. You can read that letter at the end of this story.
After Vacek’s presentation, Taylor, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña said they all agreed that the public should have a right to vote on a streetcar project, but said it’s imperative to protect the integrity of the process behind amending the city charter.
“We all agree that there should be a vote on this,” Taylor said, adding that charter amendments need consistency and high standards are critical. “I would err on the side of caution and go with the city attorney’s opinion that the petition did not meet charter requirements.”
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez said the proposed charter amendment must be on the November ballot.
“There’s an obligation to recognize the right of the citizens to petition their government. This has nothing to do with the streetcar anymore,” Lopez said.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier and District 10 Mike Gallagher all said they thought the proposed amendment should be on the November ballot because of the same reasoning.
According to Nirenberg, the petition is a debate of the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law.
“I think it’s clear, with 20,000-plus signatures and a potential paradigm change in transportation, that should not happen without a public vote,” Nirenberg said, adding that the debate is purely political and said he wished the council could move on to other business as quickly as possible.
The Streetcar Vote Coalition has 20 days to cure the defective signatures, but in order to get the measure on the November ballot, it must be cured by Aug. 18, Greenblum said during the meeting.
But Brockhouse doesn’t think there is anything to cure because he says the circulator affidavits are not needed, which gives the petition 20,999 valid signatures.
“We’re hopeful we can take a step back here and talk about what the next decision is and be good partners with the City of San Antonio. But if the City of San Antonio doesn’t meet us halfway, then unfortunately we may have to turn to legal action and make sure the will of the people is heard,” Brockhouse said.
And one thing is for sure, the streetcar petition may not be about the streetcar anymore, a point that Brockhouse picked up during the meeting.
“They’re talking about bringing streetcar back. It’s a pause or it’s a delay or maybe it was bad marketing that caused these problems. So that makes the charter amendment even more important because a charter amendment is codified in law and it’s how our city operates and it gives the citizens a right to control their public tax dollars, especially when it comes to transportation,” Brockhouse said. “So the council did get something right today. This isn’t about the streetcar. This is about the public’s right to vote and that is what the decision is about.”
In the letter the Streetcar Vote Coalition sent to the city clerk’s office, they call for the council to put the measure on the November ballot Thursday morning during the City Council A Session meeting.
During that meeting, the council will consider a resolution that will divert the $32 million contribution the city made to the streetcar to other Downtown projects after the council pulled its support of the project last week.