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On Monday, August 31, the mayor of Rockport, Patrick Rios, pushed through $14.72 million in “emergency” tax notes, claiming building a new city hall is an emergency. This went against citizens who demanded a vote on the large debt proposal. In a surprise move, Mayor Patrick Rios chose to block citizens from voting. Attorneys claimed that either Hurricane Harvey repairs or Governor Abbott’s state-of-emergency orders made it “available” for the City of Rockport to push through their plans to incur municipal debt without input from voters.

In the midst of aggressive COVID-19 shutdowns, government offices were closed to the public. During that time, the county commissioners court of Aransas County and the Rockport City Council were working behind the scenes to secure financing for a new three city block courthouse/city hall complex. Dubbed the “Downtown Anchor Project,” it was to replace the modest government building, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.

After two years of planning, both governmental entities waited until mid-July to unveil their floor plans and the price tags for their building projects. The city was going to need $11.7 million to complete their building project and was asking for another $8 million for various other expenses. The county would need $19.9 million for the new courthouse and was asking for another $4 million to fund other projects. Both entities decided against general bond elections in favor of issuing Certificates of Obligation.

Many members of the community, still reeling after Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 economic crisis, were shocked to learn they would soon be facing over $40 million in debt for an extravagant government complex and would have no say in the matter.

Local citizen, Andrew Kane, took notice and read the legal announcement in the newspaper. He learned that the state statute that governs the issuance of Certificates of Obligation also gives citizens the right to force the debt proposals on the ballot, with a petition of 5 percent of qualified voters.

Andrew gathered volunteers in the community and started a Facebook page, Aransas County Courthouse – Let Us Vote, which rallied the community behind two separate petitions: one for the courthouse and one for the city hall. Volunteers gathered on the south corner of the strip mall, and the citizens of the community began to pour in to sign the petition. In just three weeks, volunteers were able to gain enough signatures that it prompted the county to change its mind and put the Certificates of Obligations on the November ballot as general election bonds.

The city refused to relent, even after more than enough signatures were collected to force the city’s Certificates of Obligation to a vote. Just one week after the petition to the city had been certified, Mayor Patrick Rios scheduled a special meeting for August 31 to push through his share of the Downtown Anchor Project.

The city’s financial advisor admitted that in 30 years of working in the industry, the successful petition against the county and the city Certificates of Obligation were only the second and third he had ever seen. He warned the council of looming “investor fatigue” as bond investors would be nervous about the lack of support from voters for the city’s bond proposals. Mayor Rios was determined to move forward despite voter disapproval. He stated that the council must get the “best financial deal” now because citizens were “ignorant to the facts” and the council was elected to make these decisions.

The final vote was 4-1, with only Councilman Bob Cunningham voting ‘no.’ Cunningham requested a guarantee that the public would get input and have a say in the final floor plan and cost for the project; the mayor and three other council members did not want voter input.

Mayor Rios faces opponent Keith Allen, a lifelong resident and local family man, who opposes large capital expenditures without voter approval. Keith Allen was an avid supporter of both petition drives to let citizens vote on the debt proposals.

After Mayor Patrick Rios ignored citizen’s demands and pushed forward his finance deal without voter input, Rockport citizens should run to the polls in November in support of new leadership and stop this out-of-control spending by Mayor Rios and the city council.

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 [email protected].