Smith County commissioners approved two local-option alcohol proposals Tuesday despite criticism from an opposition group that believes petitioners do not have enough signatures to call an election in Justice of the Peace Precinct 2.
Karen Nelson, Smith County election administrator, testified before court members that the minimum required number to call an election, 6,579, or 35 percent of the people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election, were verified by her office.
Of the 12,825 signatures submitted by petitioners Buy Local First to place a proposal for the legal sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption in the precinct, 6,966 were validated by the election office, she said.
More than 11,000 signatures were submitted to expand mixed beverage sales for restaurants and clubs in the jurisdiction and 7,722 were approved.
Precinct 2 includes southern Tyler and unincorporated areas south and west of the city, Flint, Noonday and Bullard.
County Attorney Stan Springerley told the court state law says court members “shall call the election upon verification.”
Opposition group Stand Strong for Tyler attorney Norman Ladd addressed the court before the vote and said the group found enough discrepancies to deny placement on November ballots. Ladd said the group identified 6,378 valid signatures putting the petition drive 201 signatures short.
Ladd said the signatures had been invalidated for numerous reasons, including duplicate signatures, incorrect or missing birthdates, signers who registered to vote after signing the petition and signers who had moved outside the precinct.
Springerley told the court it is common for signatures to be tossed and that petitions “revealed problems” but recommended the court approve placement on the ballot as required by law upon verification the minimum requirement was met.
Billy Horton, owner of Hard Count Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm that has petitioned for the sale of beer and wine in the area, including in Bullard and Athens and is assisting Stand Strong for Tyler, said the court “rushed” the process despite questions regarding the count.
“There’s no gray area in the law,” he said. “By our numbers they don’t have enough signatures, and it’s amazing to me the numbers thrown out by the county don’t raise enough concerns to take the time and compare our numbers with theirs.”
After the meeting, Horton called Springerley a “liar” for telling court members 95 percent of the petitions were “correct and accurate” and used dated legal statutes to bolster a case for passage. Horton said 361 of 1,199 petition pages, 30 percent, were disqualified because they were submitted without registration numbers, which are required on each page.
Group members said the county has not complied with a public information request for a list of verified signatures. Springerley said the group has made numerous public information requests but has yet to file one for the verified list.
In an afternoon email, County Judge Joel Baker said the court stands by its decision based on the information presented by legal counsel in court Tuesday.
Stand Strong for Tyler also questioned the city of Tyler’s verification process and asked officials for more time. The City Council approved placing the same two proposals on November ballots for Tyler voters to consider.
Buy Local First chairman and local businessman Bob Westbrook called the county’s verification process “thorough.”
“Anyone who questions the hard work done is just trying to create doubt,” he said. “Everybody did their job.”
Westbrook said it will be up to precinct voters to decide the fate of beer and wine sales.
Winona, Troup, Alba, Jacksonville, Athens, Henderson, Rusk and Mineola voted in recent years to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption. Residents from Smith County Justice of the Peace Precinct 4, Arp, Bullard, Whitehouse, Lindale, Brownsboro, Murchison and Hawkins rejected similar measures.
Opposition group member Mike Daniels, Landmark Baptist Church pastor, called the court’s action disappointing and said “the words due diligence and fair have a different meaning in there.”
“It looks like we are fighting an uphill battle and we are,” he said.
“It’s been all-consuming for the past 30 days,” she said. “Verifying the signatures was one of our top priorities, and I am confident in our process.”
Stand Strong for Tyler or any other opposition group can file an injunction to stop the election at any time before the Nov. 6 election. The group would have to show evidence that enough invalid signatures were among those verified.