If you’re in Floresville Tuesday, you might see people outside of the Wilson County Elections Office, but they won’t be voting.
They will probably be carrying signs, as they have on and off for the last week outside the office on Fourth Street, saying “Floresville City Council: We want to vote Now! Not in May.”
At a special meeting they called in July, where they deliberated in secret, the Floresville council agreed to cancel the municipal election set for November and reschedule it for the first Tuesday in May 2020. In doing so, three of the five members who participated in the unanimous vote extended their own terms six months beyond their two-year limits.
Officials, including Cissy Gonzalez-Dippel, mayor of this city of 7,000 southeast of San Antonio, have gotten opinions from state, county and city legal experts saying that the council violated state law by canceling the election.
The council, however, met with City Attorney Sylvia Rodriguez and other attorneys on city retainer during that secret meeting in July before taking their vote, Gonzalez-Dippel, who was there but does not have a vote, said Monday.
Gonzalez-Dippel told The Texas Monitor she was advised not to discuss what was said in that closed session, but that council members were not persuaded that what they were doing was against the law. During the public portion of the meeting, council members said they were overturning a council decision in 2011 to hold the municipal election on the first Tuesday in November and returning to the May date set out in the Floresville city charter, she said.
Since 2017, the Texas Election Code has prohibited cities from changing their November election dates. While the election code is clear that Floresville is in violation of state law, the section dealing with the violation says nothing about if or how the state would penalize a city for rescheduling a local election.
“The big question right now that has us so confused is what do we do now,” Gonzalez-Dippel said. “We’ve been told by state and local officials the council can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, we voted on it.’ They can’t do that. It makes me so angry, I’ve had to up my blood pressure medicine.”
The Texas Monitor on Monday contacted more than a dozen state, county and local officials for this story. Council members Gerard Jimenez, Gloria Morales Cantu, and Juan Ortiz, whose terms until the July meeting were to have ended this month, did not reply to email requests for comment. Marissa Ximenez and Gloria Martinez, whose terms would have expired in November 2020, also did not return requests for comment.
Rodriguez, who counseled the city council in private, did not return a phone message left for her on Monday.
Gonzalez-Dippel, who has served as mayor for three years, came into office following a rancorous effort by a former council member, Eric Rodriguez, to recall former Mayor Sherry Castillo, council member Ortiz and former council member Daniel Tejada.
At one point in early 2016, Castillo banned Rodriguez from council meetings and backed it by obtaining a warrant for his arrest on a charge of criminal trespass if he came to another meeting.
As had been the case for several years, Rodriguez was protesting excessive city spending. He gathered a sufficient number of signatures on a recall petition and the city secretary certified that the recall be put on the ballot. However, District Judge Richard Ayala ordered it stricken because its scheduled election date, Nov. 8, 2016, was in violation of the city charter.
Gonzalez-Dippel’s criticism of the city’s debt, currently $23 million, and her questioning of the contract for a $2.2 million sports complex under construction behind the city’s events center, has put her at odds with a council that has been in lockstep on spending issues, she said.
“There has been a lot of discord on the council over accountability long before I was elected,” she said.
There has also been a lot of discord over the scheduling of council elections since they were moved to November eight years ago. At the time, the Floresville council followed other communities in Texas in realigning their local elections to the same day as state and national elections in an effort to boost voter turnout, Gonzalez-Dippel said.
“I think some people think by moving it back to May they will keep voters away,” she said.
In late June, the elections office posted a notice that potential candidates for the three council seats up in November had from July 20 to Aug. 19 to filed their paperwork to run. But the council called a special meeting three days before the start of filing and voted to push the election date back to May 2020.
In answer to an inquiry in August by Superintendent Sherri Bays of the Floresville school district, Chuck Pinney, an attorney for Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division, said Floresville had no statutory authority to move their election from Nov. 5.
The Floresville school board took Pinney’s advice and scheduled its election for Tuesday.
“As we have explained, Election Code 41.0052 does not currently provide any authority for the city to move the date of their general election at this time,” an email from Pinney to Bays, obtained by The Texas Monitor, said. “Pursuant to Election Code 41.008, an election that is held on a date not permitted by the Election Code is considered void.”
Calls to Pinney and his supervisor, state Director of Elections Keith Ingram, were not returned before this story posted.
Wilson County Attorney Tom Caldwell sent the same message of election invalidation to City Manager Henrietta Turner in a July 25 letter. Caldwell wrote that in his opinion the council’s discussion of the election change during a closed session violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to a story by the San Antonio Express News.
The Texas Civil Rights Project, an Austin nonprofit and leader on voting rights issues, called the council’s decision illegal. Beth Stevens, voting rights program director for the Project, told The Texas Monitor Monday that Floresville voters have already been deprived by being prevented from voting early.
“The decision to take the voices of voters away from them to play politics is abhorrent,” Stevens said. “The city needs to address this and, ultimately, the state.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].