On Friday, attorney Jerad Najvar with Najvar Law Firm in Houston posted a simple question on Facebook: “Did the San Angelo Mayor Admit to Violating Open Meetings Law to Thwart Pro-Life Ordinance?” Najvar has been retained by residents of San Angelo, who had petitioned their leadership for an ordinance that would outlaw abortion within the city limits of San Angelo. The concerns of Najvar and his clients is that “the interests of San Angelo citizens are being frustrated by apparent violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA).”
On Tuesday, February 1, their petition was certified and a hearing was set to vote for or against the ordinance on March 1. This was a surprise to many, as this was twice the length of time that the city council of Lubbock took to schedule a public hearing. In Lubbock, the city council certified their citizens’ petitions on November 2, 2020, and scheduled a hearing 15 days later on November 17, 2020. When San Angelo’s leadership pushed the hearing out by a month, it closed the opportunity for a May election had the council rejected the ordinance at a hearing prior to February 18 at 5:00 p.m.—the official deadline for local ballot initiatives in the State of Texas. In response to this awkward delay, Najvar wrote, “There was plenty of time for Council to publish a copy of the ordinance as required by the Charter and hold the public hearing on or before February 18, enabling a May election if Council does not approve the Ordinance itself.” Najvar continued, “My clients and, it is safe to say, the thousands of citizens who signed the petition remain disappointed by Council’s summary decision to delay the public hearing until March 1, without any explanation as to why it could not be done sooner.”
What made the issue even more concerning was the mayor’s announcement after the city council voted to schedule the hearing for March 1. Upon the 4-1 vote, Mayor Brenda Gunter announced, “It will be on the November ballot.” In a letter sent to San Angelo City Attorney Theresa James on Thursday, Najvar wrote, “This statement is peculiar, because the Charter first requires the Council, as a body, to decide after the public hearing whether to adopt the Ordinance itself. Yet, on its face, the Mayor’s statement reflects at least her confidence that the Council has already decided that it will not adopt the Ordinance in full, thus necessitating an election.”
Najvar continued, “If the Council has already decided it will not adopt the Ordinance, then this decision was made in violation of TOMA, whether it was done in an informal meeting with a quorum or in a series of communications undertaken to avoid a quorum being present at any one time.”
“The citizens of San Angelo did everything their city council required them to do,” said Jim Baxa, president of West Texas For Life. “The City of San Angelo has a legal obligation to do their part and make sure that what they do is done in a timely manner and in accordance with their city charter.”
Najvar summed up the two-page letter to San Angelo’s city attorney on his Facebook post, stating, “Mayor Brenda Gunter’s comments Feb. 1 indicate that she has already decided that the Council will not adopt the ordinance and instead force an election, delayed to November. She doesn’t have that power, and if she has twisted arms behind the scenes to ensure the Council doesn’t adopt this ordinance, then she has violated the Open Meetings Act and the March 1 public hearing will be a sham.”
Upon hearing the news, State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock shared, “I am troubled to learn of reports from across the State of certain municipalities trying to delay and thwart the efforts of citizens to outlaw abortion in their communities.” Burrows continued, “I am committed to help investigate these reports, and help remedy them with future legislation if necessary.”
The City of San Angelo had not responded to Najvar’s letter by the time of publication.
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