Petitioner did not conclusively establish charter amendment petition was valid; but city did not prove it was not valid so case remanded

City of Galena Park, Et Al. v. Barry Ponder, 14-15-00708-CV (Tex.App— Houston [ 14th Dist.] October 25, 2016)

In this suit to compel a charter amendment election, the 14th Court of Appeals reversed the granting of a summary judgment which favored the election.

Barry Ponder delivered a set of papers to Galena Park City Secretary Mayra Gonzales that purported to be a petition in support of city charter amendments proposed by a local group. The amendments concerned, respectively, (1) the creation of four new commissioner positions to act as liaisons from the city commission to certain departments of the city government; (2) appointment and duties of fire chief, fire marshal, and police chief; (3) a detailed procedural system for voter initiative, referendum, and recall petitions; and (4) changes to the general powers of the mayor and the commission. According to the City Secretary, there were no proposed charter amendments attached to the signature pages. She reviewed the signature pages to determine the validity of the signatures. The number of valid signatures exceeded the charter requirements. However, the City Attorney asserted the petition did not constitute a proper petition primarily because (1) the signature pages did not include the text or a description of any proposed amendment to the charter so there was no way to tell what amendments were being presented, (2) there were no amendments attached to the signature pages as referenced, and (3) the proposed amendments covered multiple subjects, which he asserts is not permitted under the law. The City refused to call the election and Ponder filed suit. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment and the trial court ruled for Ponder. The City appealed.

The court first analyzed Ponder’s summary judgment and determined that enough qualified voters signed the petition. However, that does not mean the petition itself is proper. The gap in Ponder’s logic is the papers do not conclusively establish that the four amendments presented are the actual amendments that the signatories were demanding be placed on the ballot. Further, the City Secretary’s letter only stated that the number of signatures exceeded the required number for an amendment petition, but was not an acceptance of the rest of the petition. The trial court errored in granting Ponder’s motion. The court then considered the City’s motion. The court narrowed the issues by listing several City issues as abandoned or not preserved. The court then determined that while Ponder did not conclusively establish entitlement to summary judgment, the City’s arguments on the form of the petition did not establish the charter section (§9.004) were not met. Further, nothing in the text of section §9.004, expressly prohibits an election petition from proposing more than one amendment. Further, proposed changes to a city charter may seek broader schematic changes to city government that may make sense only as an all-or-nothing proposition. In other words, broad categories for amendments are fine. Thus, the City did not establish entitlement to summary judgment. The case is remanded back to the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here listed . The Panel includes Justice Jamison, Justice Donovan and Justice Brown.  Justice Jamison delivered the opinion of the court. Attorneys for the City are listed as Eric C.  Farrar and John J. Hightower. Attorneys for the Ponder are listed as David Tang, Richard Nguyen and Paul H. Lavalle.