Roughly 8,000 of the individual petitions have been validated by the group, Gualtierre said. To meet the 5 percent of the electorate threshold, about 5,700 valid signatures must be turned in to make the ballot.
The Amarillo City Council is set to meet on August 10 and consider approval of the CO bond — a debt issued by a locality that does not need voter approval. As of 2020, $22.6 billion of issued CO debt was outstanding across the entire State of Texas.
COs were originally established in the 1970s to allow for emergency infrastructure spending that couldn’t wait for the ballot box. They have increasingly been used to refinance existing debt, like one would refinance a mortgage.
This particular expenditure stems from a $275 million proposal last year by the five-member council to build a new civic center where the current city hall sits. That item, labeled “Proposition A,” was defeated soundly last November with nearly two-thirds of voters against it. The ballot language of Proposition A did not specifically mention the relocation of city hall and instead referred to the project as “Convention Center Facilities Expansion and Improvement.”
Opponents of the measure, including Gualtierre, said the city hall relocation was part of the proposal as it was sold to the public even if a more generic label was placed on the ballot.
Once Proposition A failed, the city council could not move forward with its plan for the civic center renovation. But they decided to move forward with the city hall relocation, announcing their intent to issue the $35 million in spending.
“To be clear, the issue here is not moving Amarillo’s City Hall,” Gualtierre said in a statement on Tuesday, “the primary issue, and purpose of the petition drive, is our Council’s use of Certificates of Obligation to fund any project without asking taxpayers.”
Gualtierre said petition circulators were hired to assist with collecting the thousands of signatures but had resounding success with circulating the petition at his coffee shop among patrons.
Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson, who was supportive of the civic center renovation and is spearheading this CO bond issuance, did not return an interview request for this story.
State law prohibits a locality from issuing CO debt for a purpose that had been defeated at the ballot box at any point within the previous three years. But since the city hall relocation was not specifically mentioned in the ballot language, the council says it is not running afoul state code in issuing the debt now.
Gualtierre has sued the city, challenging its ruling that the moratorium provision does not apply. That case is still in litigation.
This is not the first CO debt use by the city even in the recent past. Last summer during the pandemic’s height, Amarillo City Council issued $8.15 million in spending to finance the construction of a public water park. That month, Amarillo posted a 9 percent unemployment rate.
After that episode and then when the city decided to move forward on the CO despite the civic center loss, Gualtierre told The Texan in an interview, “I decided that I wasn’t going to take this anymore and that I was tired of the city council pulling things like this.”
“People here are sick of being taken advantage of.”
Petition efforts have rarely been employed to challenge CO bonds, but another example appears to have been successful this week in Odessa to place a $95 million upgrade of the water treatment plant on the ballot.
The 87th legislature reformed CO bond usage this year by restricting what they can be issued for. A city hall is not among the “designated infrastructure” projects for which voter approval is not required in the bill’s final version. And because it is new construction, whether the project meets the “renovating existing facilities” category exempting voter approval is up for debate.
But the new law does not go into effect until September 1 and so approving it in August would be tied to the current, soon-to-be-old rules governing CO issuance.
If the petition is approved, the city council must decide whether to move forward with the bond issuance and let voters have a say or to put the project on pause.
Update: The Amarillo City Council withdrew the $35 million CO notice, putting the project on pause at its Tuesday, August 24 meeting by a vote of 4 to 1. The city manager said of the motion, “It gives an extra level of diligence, but it remains an important project and something has to be done.”
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.