The city of Tyler will release copies of 2,000 petition pages with voter information to a group opposing attempts to place a local-option beverage election on November ballots.
“Stand Strong for Tyler,” a local political action committee formed to oppose proposed local-option elections for beer and wine sales, had questioned city officials’ inability to comply with a public information request and turn over petitions with more than 9,000 voter signatures. The group wants to verify that signatures were checked correctly, said member Mike Daniels, Landmark Baptist Church pastor.
“Buy Local First,” a political action committee for the sale of beer and wine, hired Texas Petition Strategies to circulate petitions and gather about 7,800 signatures of registered voters in the city of Tyler and 6,700 in Justice of the Peace Precinct 2. The signatures were turned over to the city clerk and county election director for verification.
The request for copies of the petitions to allow a November election for the sale of beer and wine was made June 26. By law the city had 10 days to comply.
The Smith County Election Department already has turned over more than 7,800 signatures for voters in Justice of the Peace Precinct 2. Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said the county still is in the process of verifying signatures and has hired three additional temporary workers to help. Ms. Nelson estimated the verification effort will cost the county $4,400.
“We’re being sandbagged by the city. The city sent us a letter with mundane excuses, all of which aren’t legit,” Daniels said at the time. “It makes me suspicious that there is pressure over there to not give (the signatures) to us.”
City spokeswoman Susan Guthrie said the city’s No. 1 priority is verifying the signatures by the July 23 deadline, which is required by law.
The city has hired three temporary workers and has the city clerk staff working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to verify the signatures.
While the request is a priority, it represents an additional burden on city staff and raised possible confidentiality questions about law enforcement and city personnel whose information appears on the petitions, she said.
The petitions include names, addresses and, in some cases, voter identification numbers.
City attorney Gary Landers said in certain circumstances, public information requests can be returned within “reasonable time.” He offered Aug. 13 as a possible date. The City Council is expected to call the election on July 25.
Billy Horton, of Hardcount Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm that has assisted local-option beverage petition drives in the area, including Athens, is advising Stand Strong for Tyler and said the city’s reasoning did not add up. Failure by the city to meet its public information request deadline and [having] the City Council call the election before handing over the information “would be a travesty,” Horton said.
Smith County officials, on the other hand, had not only handed over the information but had agreed to call the election on the last possible date, Aug. 14, to give any group ample time to raise questions about the petitions, Daniels said.
By noon, the city reversed its stance after contacting Smith County and the city of Dallas about how the two entities had handled similar requests and balanced the public’s right to know and confidentiality questions. Based on the discussions, he said the city decided it would release copies to the group today.
A Stand Strong for Tyler group member Thursday stopped by City Hall with the check for $338 to cover paper and three hours of work.
Landers said the petitions’ validity can be challenged beyond the deadline and placement of the proposals on ballots.
In an earlier interview, Buy Local First chairman Bob Westbrook said the group verified signatures with registered voter rolls before turning them over to the city and county.
Daniels said his group has no agenda for requesting the voter information other than verifying each signature should count. Earlier Thursday, he said the group would file a complaint with the state and possibly take legal action against the city.
After hearing the city would release the information, Daniels said he believed the city would not have complied if the group had not spoken out publicly. He said he has not been contacted by the city about its intentions.
“We’ll be thankful, but we’ll believe it when we see them,” he said. “It’s in their corner if they say they will give them to us.”