AP NEWS

Debate reveals tension about east side growth

January 11, 2018 GMT

Odessa’s District 5 City Councilman Filiberto Gonzales said his opposition to a proposal to restructure the City Council is really not about civil rights for him. Gonzales also said he does not see the changes as a way of weakening Hispanic voting strength for positions on a board he argues does not make racially polarized decisions.

“To me this is about power — this is about power” Gonzales said in an interview after the meeting, adding “I have never used the word racism, discrimination. At the end of the day I want to make sure that we go with facts. I want to go do what’s right for the city of Odessa.”

It was a significant acknowledgement that came less than a week after Gonzales lent his support to a group opposing the proposed changes that said the restructuring would illegally discriminate against Odessa minorities by diluting their votes. If voters approved the changes, an attempt to block them from taking effect could hinge on that being true.

But Gonzales’ comments also framed the full council’s discussion of the restructuring proposal on Tuesday — a more than 45 minute debate on Odessa development, focusing on the east side of town that opponents of the proposed council restructuring say the changes would favor.

The meeting Tuesday at times became contentious, with council members and citizen speakers talking over each other.

Three members of the City Council — Gonzales, District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton — combined last month to deny a May election so voters can decide on the restructuring proposal that would add a new council position elected by voters city wide and give the mayor a vote. Graff had argued the changes would be discriminatory, and so did Hamilton, who also said they are “evil” and “racist.”

But Gonzales said his concern is not that the at-large positions would disadvantage Hispanics — it’s what he said is a wealth gap in the eastern part of town and other parts of the city, combined with a greater amount of registered voters in east-side District 2.

“I don’t see it as a racially motivated agenda for anybody,” Gonzales said.

In any case, the denial prompted a petition drive that is underway to force an election.

On Tuesday, the entire City Council had been scheduled to discuss “pros and cons of single-member district representation, at-large representation, and strong mayor representation.” But they barely did so.

Hamilton at point engaged in a heated back-and-forth with Sondra Eoff, who with her husband is investing about $50 million in the city-supported downtown hotel and conference center, as she tried to make the case for her support of the council restructuring proposal. She was also arguing that east Odessa, where she lives, is part of the city where the City Council should support development.

Hamilton questioned her altruism in pursuing the multimillion facility in his district, which city officials sought as a way to kick off a broader redevelopment of the long blighted area.

“You are doing it for your own benefit as private business, let’s be clear about that,” Hamilton said.

Eoff said called the remark “unbelievable and ungrateful,” said Hamilton had “done nothing to help us in this project.”

She said she wanted to help south Odessa, where she used to live. And Eoff, who is Hispanic, said efforts to paint the restructuring proposal as driven by racial prejudice as offensive to her.

“To say that everyone in District 2 is rich and powerful and doesn’t care about the rest of Odessa, I take offense to,” Eoff said.

Often confusion and inaccuracy reigned, as the City Council revisited a controversial decision in May to deny incentives for an oilfield equipment supplier, Weir Oil and Gas, that eventually abandoned plans to build a $25 million facility in Odessa in favor of Midland. Graff said the Weir vote by her, Hamilton and Gonzales was the impetus for the restructuring plan.

“There was no plot with this,” Graff said, before claiming incorrectly that plans had once called for developing the building in Ector County, instead of a portion of Odessa in Midland County. And she again aired suspicions about multiple entities being involved in a commercial real estate deal, which is not uncommon.

At another point, Gonzales and Hamilton argued that Odessa does not benefit from the businesses and neighborhoods built in Odessa over the Midland County line.

Gonzales asserted, incorrectly, that homes and businesses past the county line do not pay property taxes (later he said in an interview that “not all do,” an apparent reference to tax abatements the council sometimes awards to major projects). He and Hamilton also said that city pays for infrastructure costs such as utilities and roads that developers almost always pay.

District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner and District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant had pushed back on the arguments against supporting development in the portion of Odessa in Midland County, saying the city still collects sales and property taxes, while benefitting from any jobs created by businesses. The councilmen, and Mayor David Turner, had said developers are guided by business decisions and available land.

“If we are going to grow Odessa, you can’t make a developer grow it where you want him to grow it,” Gardner told Hamilton at one point.

Bryant and Gardner support the proposed council changes.

Fellow supporters of the council restructuring argue the change would mean more council members would be accountable to Odessa voters, and that power should not be concentrated in the hands of just five people representing single districts, often with little to no voter input.

But an attorney for a group formed to oppose the special election, Odessa Together, had described the proposal as “intentional discrimination in order to disenfranchise Latinos and African Americans in Odessa in order to empower a group that has, even though they are minority in population, they are still a majority of the voting bloc.”

The attorney, Domingo Garcia, a former Dallas politician who specializes in personal injury law and was proactive in the political fight to create single-member districts in Dallas in the early 1990s, had also threatened to sue individual organizers of a petition drive.

But Gonzales also distanced himself from the threat Tuesday, telling reporters that he would not be a part of any lawsuit. He said he wants to instead keep bringing up the proposed changes at the regular council meetings twice a month.

In the instances when council members discussed the proposed restructuring, it was in general. Graff, for example, had argued single-member districts were more effective because “we are different” so representing the smaller area better serves constituents than at-large representation would.

She and Gonzales had said the city may need to add more single-member districts but should wait until after the next census in 2020.

“If you don’t like what’s going on right now: Well next year, there’s an election,” she said.