Advocate Editorial Board opinion: City leaders need to respect will of voters
Every city government has its moments of conflict. Some level of respectful disagreement is expected in the daily business of running a town. Unfortunately, last week's Victoria City Council meeting turned from a ceremonial swearing-in of new leaders into a full-blown political circus.
That was the scene at Tuesday night's special Victoria City Council meeting. The original purpose was to set the date for the runoff election for Super District 5 and the mayoral election, as well as swear in Tom Halepaska, who won a fourth term, and Jeff Bauknight, the new councilman for District 3. The day before the meeting, Mayor Will Armstrong announced his intention to withdraw from the runoff after he came in 300 votes behind Councilman Paul Polasek in the general election.
This announcement - meant to be a gracious gesture on the part of an honorable, three-term mayor - sent the meeting into a downward spiral of pointless arguments, insults, blanket accusations and an attempt at an illegal amendment. In particular, we were extremely disappointed in the actions of council members David Hagan, Emett Alvarez, Josephine Soliz and Joe Truman, who each seemed to intentionally misunderstand or completely ignore the election regulations clearly explained by City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz and Elections Administrator George Matthews.
Their actions brought unnecessary strife and contention to what should have been a clear-cut procedure. The council has seen its share of grandstanding in the past, but this embarrassing display from more than half of our elected officials is inexcusable.
Hagan, in particular, has a track record of bringing conflict to the City Council. His previous disrespectful behavior has included accusing his fellow council members of spending money "like drunken sailors." Now, he has accused Armstrong and Polasek of holding a meeting "behind closed doors" and using "a shake of hands" to bypass the will of the voters. On the contrary, Armstrong's decision to meet with Gwosdz, Polasek and City Manager Charmelle Garrett is completely understandable and appropriate, as he was clearly informing the city's legal adviser, a head city official and his political opponent of his intention to withdraw, not coordinating a clandestine deal, as Hagan has accused him of doing, despite his attempts to backpedal when confronted by Armstrong.
Hagan also unfairly attacked the city attorney's credibility in Tuesday's meeting. The councilman's "track record," as he described it, with city attorneys is irrelevant when the law is clearly outlined, as it is in this situation. To smear another's credibility and cast blanket doubt without any merit is beyond reprehensible, and Councilman Hagan should be ashamed of himself for his baseless, divisive accusations.
Alvarez's request for an amendment to hold the runoff between Polasek and third-place candidate Omar Rachid was clearly advised to be illegal by both Gwosdz and Matthews and was still passed by Alvarez, Hagan, Soliz and Truman. Fortunately, the amendment was withdrawn in the same meeting. But the continued insistence by these four elected officials that the city's charter should rule when the charter clearly defers to state election law was at least obtuse and at worst an attempt to willfully manipulate the voting laws to prevent an outcome they disagree with.
In fact, as the meeting unfolded and all four of these council members continued to pursue similar arguments - each as invalid as the others - and raised the same objections time and again, we think it raises the question of whether they, in fact, discussed this situation before coming to this meeting and choreographed their actions. We have confirmed that Hagan and Alvarez consulted District Attorney Steve Tyler together Tuesday morning to question the legality of Armstrong's decision, but during Tuesday's meeting, Hagan outright denied discussing it with other council members. That discrepancy calls into question Hagan's integrity in his other statements. If Truman and Soliz discussed this issue with Hagan and Alvarez as well and planned their attack at the meeting, they would be guilty of the exact wrong Hagan falsely accused Armstrong and Polasek of committing. If this is the case, we find it ironic, reprehensible and worthy of criminal investigation. To accuse others of a conspiracy while violating open meetings laws themselves would be shameful.
This meeting was meant to be a positive ceremony focused on the swearing in of newly elected council members. Instead, it degenerated into a pointless political circus worthy of Washington.
The city attorney, the district attorney, the elections administrator and the Secretary of State's Office all approved Armstrong's decision and method. And yet, even when faced with all the evidence clearly and plainly laid out before them, these four elected officials refused to follow the law and tried to change the outcome of this election, decided by the voters, in the name of the voters. This hypocritical posturing has revealed their true colors, and we hope voters will remember this incident in upcoming elections.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.