City Charter amendment ballot language insufficient to give voters enough information, so could be invalid says Texas Supreme Court

 

Allen Mark Dacus, Elizabeth C. Perez, And Rev. Robert Jefferson v Annise D. Parker and City of Houston. 13-0047, (Tex. June 12, 2015).

This is an election contest case in which the Texas Supreme Court held the ballot did not make clear that the city charter amendment imposed charges directly on many voters and therefore was not specific enough to meet the minimum standards.

Voters in the City of Houston adopted a dedicated “Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets.” One source of funding was a charge imposed on properties directly benefitting from the drainage system. Publications in the newspaper and the fiscal impact summary noted the charges as being part of the amendment. However, the language on the ballot merely stated the amendment was relating to the creation of the dedicated funding source for enhancement, improvement, and renew of drainage system. After the amendment passed, several voters filed an election contest asserting the ballot language was insufficient. The City filed a summary judgment which the trial court granted and the court of appeals affirmed.

Charter amendments must be published in the newspaper and distributed prior to an election.  As a result, the actual ballot is not required to educate or repeat every word. Voters are presumed to be familiar with every measure on a ballot and the ballot need not educate them on something they are already familiar with. However, the ballot language must still capture the essence of the measure and substantially submit the question with enough certainty voters are not misled. The ballot measure in this case lacked the character descriptions noting charges to be imposed by specific landowners. “Our common law prohibits the City from submitting such an amendment to the voters without disclosing on the ballot that many of them will pay for it out of their own pockets.”  As a result, summary judgment should not have been granted and the matter is remanded.

Justice Guzman issued a concurring opinion but did so only to emphasis the common law standard is the prevailing standard.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Justice Devine issued the opinion of the court.  Justice Guzman delivered a concurring opinion found here with Justice Willett joining.  Justice Brown not sitting. The docket page with attorney information is found here.