Residents of a fifth Texas county have completed a petition allowing local voters to decide on ending forced annexation — and they did it in record time.

Citizens organized as Stop Forced Annexation in Palo Pinto County submitted a municipal annexation reform petition to county election officials on Thursday. The petition calls for a countywide vote to stop cities in Palo Pinto County from annexing unincorporated property without landowners’ consent.

The group began circulating the petition late last month. In three short weeks, volunteers collected 2,729 petition signatures – about a thousand more than needed to get the measure on the ballot in November.

The group’s president, Mike Wells, said Thursday he is confident they have succeeded in submitting more than enough valid signatures, thanks to “a fantastic amount of work” by about 30 volunteers going door to door and as many mom-and-pop businesses supporting their efforts.

Wells told Texas Scorecard their push to protect local property rights drew support from Palo Pinto residents across the political spectrum. “The effort is completely non-partisan,” he said. “A group of folks came together and made it happen.”

The petition process is part of Texas’ limited municipal annexation reform law enacted in last year’s special legislative session. Senate Bill 6 was written to restrict forced annexation only in counties with 500,000 or more residents — what the law calls “Tier 2” counties.

Unincorporated property owners in all other Texas counties — designated “Tier 1” — can still be annexed by cities without their consent, unless residents vote to change their county from unprotected Tier 1 status and “opt in” to protected Tier 2 status.

Under SB 6, if 10 percent of a county’s registered voters sign a petition, the issue is put to a countywide vote.

Election Administrator Laura Watkins told Texas Scorecard she expects to have the signatures validated in time for the August 13 meeting of Palo Pinto County Commissioners Court, which will approve putting the opt-in measure on the November ballot. Then it will be up to the voters to decide.

Preliminary ballot language reviewed by the Texas Secretary of State’s office reads:

“Changing [_____] County from Tier 1 county status to Tier 2 county status for purposes of municipal annexation as described by Chapter 43 of the Texas Local Government Code.”

All five counties will likely use the same ballot language, and all the petitioners recognize they face a public education challenge ahead of the November election.

“Phase 3” of the petition process, Wells said, “is to educate the voters of Palo Pinto County how to vote in November.” That includes explaining to voters what Tier 1 and Tier 2 status mean, and how their vote for or against the measure will impact property rights of residents facing annexation.

While the legal ballot language may be confusing for voters to interpret, advocates believe voters will easily understand the benefit of giving property owners a voice and a vote in where and how they live.

With passage of SB 6, the Texas Legislature acknowledged cities should not take control of people’s property and subject them to city taxes and regulations without their consent — but only extended legal protection to property owners in a handful of Texas counties.

“Cities abusing their authority with forced annexation practices is nothing more than a form of taxation without representation,” Gov. Greg Abbott said ahead of the 2017 special session in which he again called for reform after lobbyists helped kill it in the regular session. “Cities that annex property without the approval from those affected is piracy by government, and must end.” Cities organized under the Texas Municipal League, a government lobby group, opposed the reform.

Palo Pinto petition organizers say the mere mention of annexation by Mineral Wells City Council was enough to motivate citizens in both the city and county to take action.

During the June 19 city council meeting, petition organizers were alarmed when Mineral Wells finance director John Moran noted the probability of neighboring Parker County voting to adopt Tier 2 status in November and concluded the city had until then “to do any annexations we want.”

Parker was the first county in Texas to successfully petition for a November vote on a Tier 2 opt-in measure. As Mineral Wells lies partly in Parker and partly in Palo Pinto County, the city will be subject to Tier 2 annexation restrictions if either county votes for Tier 2 status.

At its July 3 meeting, city council decided unanimously not to pursue annexation at this time. Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone even signed the Tier 2 opt-in petition.

Mike and his wife Leanne Wells say they appreciated council’s reversal but aren’t taking anything for granted. Until Palo Pinto or Parker adopt Tier 2 status, they know the council can revive its forced annexation plans at any time.

“If we’re successful in November, we will have eliminated the ability of cities to annex without voter approval,” Mike said. “Which is how it should be.”

“I trust this current city council, but not future councils,” Leanne added. “We want this to be in the books.”

Palo Pinto County is likely the final county that will secure a Tier 2 opt-in vote this November. Mike Wells acknowledged their success was due in part to help from Laura Hester and her Parker County team, who were trailblazers in the annexation petition process and have given guidance to petition drive groups in other counties.

As in Parker, Wise County and Freestone County citizens have secured November votes on Tier 2 opt-in measures. Johnson County’s petition has been validated, and commissioners there are scheduled to approve an opt-in election at their July 23 meeting. Ellis County petition circulators are working toward a Tier 2 opt-in vote in May 2019, the next uniform election date.

“This is real grassroots control,” Leanne Wells told Texas Scorecard. “People stepping up to take control of their lives.”

Whatever the outcome of the Tier 2 opt-in elections, property rights activists in every county say they’ll keep fighting locally to protect property rights and in Austin for a legislative fix that protects all Texans from the government piracy of forced annexation.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.