BRYAN - As the Bryan City Council prepares to discuss a proposed charter amendment that, if approved, would change who could vote for candidates in elections, a civil rights group has threatened legal action if the council goes through with it.
In a message to councilmembers and City Manager Kean Register, James Harrington, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, writes that his organization "will be ready to pursue litigation" over the potential ballot issue that would allow all citizens to vote for all council members, a move Harrington writes would be a "de facto attempt to undo the progress made for Bryan through the Voting Rights Act."
Currently, the entirety of the city's registered voters can vote in the mayoral race and for an at-large council seat. The city is then divided into five single member districts (SMDs), each represented by one councilmember who must reside in their respective district. A voter can only cast a ballot for a candidate in the race for their district.
A political action committee called "Partners for a Better Bryan" has been gathering signatures for a ballot issue that would alter the charter. While a candidate for council would still be required to live in the district they seek to represent, all residents would have a chance to vote for all council positions.
"I think it will get us a better candidate that has to appeal to everybody in town, all the districts, all the SMDs, not just the one district, and give the whole town a better representation," Bobby Gutierrez told News 3 last month in regards to the PAC's efforts.
According to state records, Gutierrez started the PAC on May 1, 2014.
Harrington in his letter claims it is an effort to "re-install one of the discriminatory election schemes from the past that is designed to assure majority control of the entire city council, to the electoral detriment of the city’s minority communities."
Single Member Districts 1 and 2 have more minority residents than the other three. They also typically have seen lower voter turnouts than the other SMDs. One councilmember tells News 3 they believe the two councilmembers for those districts, Al Saenz and Rafael Pena, may be the only two dissenting votes on the matter.
The consideration of the charter amendment is the lone regular agenda item at Tuesday's regular Bryan city council meeting, which begins at 6:00 p.m. at the Bryan Municipal Building.
The following is the letter sent to the City of Bryan's leadership by the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project:
Dear Mayor and Members of the Council:
It appears there is an unabashed effort afoot to move away from the current single-member council districts and re-install one of the discriminatory election schemes from the past that is designed to assure majority control of the entire city council, to the electoral detriment of the city’s minority communities.
I truly hope the Council does not move forward with this ill-conceived plan. However, if it does, I can assure you that our office, along with the group of voting rights attorneys we have assembled to be on the watch for such efforts, will be ready to pursue litigation to prevent this de facto attempt to undo the progress made for Bryan through the Voting Rights Act.
Embarking on such a regressive political effort would cause ill will among the citizens; and the resulting litigation, problematic for the city, would be an unnecessary and undue burden on the taxpayers of the city.
Thank you for your attention to these comments.
James C. Harrington
Director, Texas Civil Rights Project