In a letter sent to San Angelo City Attorney Theresa James on February 10, the pro-life activists that led the petition process to put an abortion ban on the council’s agenda say city leadership had already decided to send the proposal to the voters before the official political process began.
“If the Council has already decided it will not adopt the Ordinance, then this decision was made in violation of [the Open Meetings Act],” the letter reads.
“If the Council has already decided not to adopt the Ordinance, then the public hearing will be a sham.”
According to the city charter, citizens can require the council to consider an ordinance if they gather enough signatures for a petition. Once the city council accepts this petition, the council then sets a public hearing and can decide afterward whether to pass or reject the ordinance. If the council rejects the ordinance, then the voters will have the chance to pass it in a citywide election.
The San Angelo City Council accepted the initiating committee’s petition in support of the ordinance at the February 1 meeting. At that meeting, Mayor Brenda Gunter nearly set the public hearing for March 1 at the suggestion of the city clerk before being reminded that protocol requires public comment and a formal vote.
During public comment, supporters of the local abortion ban asked the city to set an earlier date for the hearing since, due to city deadlines, a March 1 hearing would result in the ordinance going on the ballot in November rather than May if the council were to reject it.
After public comment, the city council voted 4 to 1 to set the hearing for March 1. After that vote, Gunter said that the ordinance “will be on the November ballot,” even though that decision technically won’t be made until after the public hearing according to the charter.
Represented by attorney Jerad Najvar, the pro-life activists called the statement “disturbing” and said it shows a violation of the OMA since it indicates a decision was made outside of the regular political process.
“On its face, the Mayor’s statement reflects at least her confidence that the Council has already decided that it will not adopt the Ordinance in full, thus necessitating an election,” the letter reads.
“If the Council has already decided it will not adopt the Ordinance, then this decision was made in violation of TOMA, whether it was done in an informal meeting with a quorum or in a series of communications undertaken to avoid a quorum being present at any one time.”
Specifically, the OMA prohibits “walking quorums,” the act of government officials communicating about an issue in their jurisdiction outside of a formal meeting.
In addition to Gunter’s remark at the February 1 meeting, the activists claim the mayor told them months ago that the council had already decided to push the issue to the voters.
Mark Lee Dickson, founder of the “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” initiative, says he and some San Angelo residents met Gunter last year at her restaurant and heard from her personally that the city council had made up their minds about sending the ordinance to a municipal election.
“Myself and several citizens ended up asking the mayor while we were at her steakhouse, Miss Hattie’s, that’s when I met the mayor, and I asked her — we asked her collectively, myself and a couple other members of the community — we asked her about the possibility of San Angelo becoming a Sanctuary City for the Unborn and showed interest that this was something that many were wanting to see put on the agenda in the future,” Dickson said.
“And at that point, she told us that they had already decided that, if this ever came up, it would go to the ballot.”
One of the citizens who was there, a woman named Lou McLemore who works at the Concho Valley Biblical Counseling Center, confirmed that the encounter took place and said she was the one who approached Gunter.
“I just got up and approached her and she was smiling, very friendly, and she looked at my shirt and my name tag and said, ‘Would you like to visit for a minute?’ And I said, ‘I would really like to,’” McLemore described.
“And she said, ‘All right, what do you want to talk about?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would like to visit with you about the Sanctuary City for the Unborn.’ And her complete countenance changed, and she goes, ‘I’ll give you two minutes.’ I mean, just Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And she sat with us for a few minutes and she goes, ‘Matter of fact, it’s already decided,’ and that’s that.”
The letter describes an encounter that happened in June, but McLemore says she remembers her conversation happening on May 29.
Najvar claimed Gunter’s statements show that city leadership violated the law.
“Basically, [the OMA] makes it a misdemeanor for any member of a body like this, a governmental body, to have a series of communications with other members of the body to solidify a vote on an issue. That’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to be done for the public to watch under the Open Meetings Act,” Najvar said.
“We’re hoping that the council will do the right thing. Number one, the public hearing that they have to have on the charter ought to be a real hearing. It can’t be a sham hearing where the council has already determined their position behind the scenes.”
James and Gunter did not respond to requests for comment.
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