On the morning of Thursday, April 28, the city council of Abilene, Texas (population 124,407), heard from residents about the possibility of passing an ordinance outlawing abortion within their city limits. The effort was the result of a successful citizen initiative campaign where the initiating committee collected more than 12,000 signatures (7,042 of which were verified) to force the ordinance for a public vote by the Abilene City Council.

Only one person from the community spoke in opposition to the passage of the enforceable ordinance at the packed city council meeting.

Prior to the vote, City Attorney Stanley Smith gave an overview of the citizen initiative process as outlined in Sections 31 and 40 of the Abilene City Charter. Smith said, “The initiated ordinance as written cannot be changed or modified by the council, it is either passed or it goes to the voters.” Following Smith’s overview, Mayor Williams clarified, “So, before us today … either it is passed at this level or it is put on the November [ballot], which is the next available election for the citizens to vote on. Is that correct?” Smith affirmed, “That’s correct.”

All of these statements were consistent with the Abilene City Charter.

Later, however, there was a deviation from this understanding. After the public hearing, Mayor Anthony Williams then said, “We can vote to do three things: We can vote yes, we can vote no, or we can vote to put this on the November election. Is that correct, Mr. Smith?” Smith affirmed, “You can do all three of those things, yes.”

Councilman Kyle McAlister quickly made a motion to send the ordinance to the ballot; the motion received a second from Councilman Travis Craver. McAlister and Craver are running for re-election in the May 7 election.

Councilmembers Lynn Beard and Donna Albus voted in support of McAlister’s motion. Councilmembers Shane Price, Weldon Hurt, and Mayor Anthony Williams voted against sending the ordinance to the ballot, as they were in favor of immediately passing the ordinance outlawing abortion.

Upon the 4-3 vote by the Abilene City Council, speculation arose from those in attendance if the Abilene City Council even had the authority to vote on sending the ordinance to the ballot since Section 40 of the Abilene City Charter did not specifically state that the council had that ability. Section 40 of the Abilene City Charter reads, “If the council shall fail to pass an ordinance proposed by initiative petition in the exact form proposed … the proposed … ordinance shall be submitted to the voters.” Many in attendance felt that the Abilene City Council had pulled a fast one on them by attempting to not vote on the ordinance as the city charter requires.

In an email written to Pastor Scott Beard on June 29, 2021, Abilene City Attorney Stanley Smith explained the citizen initiative process. Smith wrote, “Section 40, City Charter, provides that if the City Council does not pass the Initiative ordinance in the exact form proposed, the Initiative ordinance will be submitted to the voters. If a majority of voters vote in favor of the proposed ordinance, it becomes an ordinance of the city.” Has the opinion of the city attorney changed? Did the opinion of the city attorney change during the council meeting?

This also appeared to be the same understanding of City Secretary Shawna Atkinson in an email she wrote responding to retired news reporter Jerry Reed on December 8, 2021. Atkinson wrote, “If Council votes to not pass the ordinance, there would be deadlines regarding a special election.”

The understanding that the city council would have to vote on the ordinance also appears to have been the same understanding of City Manager Robert Hanna. In an April 11, 2022, article in the Abilene Reporter-News, it was reported that City Manager Robert Hanna said the second reading of the ordinance on April 28 would require a “formal, verbatim reading by the council, at which point it may adopt it — but cannot change its wording.” Hanna told the news outlet that if the council takes no action, the ordinance would go to the ballot in November: “If that happens, then this will go to the voters for their consideration and approval. … [Then] the community will make a decision on what they want to do.”

As those in attendance started to understand the motion made by Councilman McAlister, several became furious as they believed the move made by the city council was nothing more than a “puppet show” or a “charade” orchestrated to make those who voted to send the ordinance to the ballot appear more pro-life than they actually were. Someone in attendance at the council meeting called a “point of order,” and what was believed to have been a violation of the Abilene City Charter was addressed with the council. City Attorney Stanley Smith stood by the decision of the Abilene City Council, stating that the council had voted to send the ordinance to the ballot.

Ashley Leenerts with Texas Right To Life speaks before the Abilene City Council.

Abilene resident James Sargent, who is running against Councilman Kyle McAlister in the May 7 election, is ready to see Councilman McAlister place the ordinance back on the agenda for a vote of the city council. Sargent shared, “If the motion to send the ordinance to ballot is not allowed by city charter; why would McAlister propose it and then continue to pass over it after the infraction was brought to his attention? What would happen if it passed or failed?”

The council meeting chambers and overflow areas were packed with Abilene residents wanting to see abortion outlawed in their city.

Sargent continued, “It seems that McAlister is using every opportunity to deny or delay the passing of this ordinance. It is a sad day when elected officials play politics with people’s lives.”

The very next day, attorney Isaac Castro wrote a letter to Mayor Anthony Williams and the Abilene City Council challenging the action of the city council. Representing Project Destiny Abilene, Castro wrote:

It is our position that no proper vote on the proposed ordinance has occurred. No one is required to support or oppose the submission to the voters as it occurs by operation of law and the City Charter. (Charter §40). If the motion had failed, there would be no consequence since the ordinance must be submitted to the voters if the council fails to pass the ordinance.

Castro went on to question the motives of McAlister and Craver, calling their motion “nothing more than a political ploy” and claiming that the two appeared to be putting their “political ambitions ahead of their legal duties as public officials.” Castro argued that “since the ordinance was the matter to be considered per the agenda item and City Charter §18, the passage of the ordinance was never considered” and that the council had an obligation to take action on the ordinance since the council “has neither passed, nor has it failed to pass, the ordinance.”

Project Destiny Abilene is calling for the mayor and city council to place the ordinance on the agenda and take a vote on the passage of the ordinance as their city charter requires. While it is anyone’s guess what will happen next, it is expected that abortion will be outlawed in the City of Abilene. Currently, 48 cities have passed ordinances outlawing abortion within their city limits; a total of 43 of those cities are in the State of Texas.

This is a commentary published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to submission@texasscorecard.com.

Mark Lee Dickson

Mark Lee Dickson is a director with Right to Life of East Texas and the founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn Initiative.