John Cook, Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd recall, El Paso, Texas (2012)
An effort to recall John Cook, Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd from their elected positions on the El Paso, Texas city government was launched in July 2011. A recall election was scheduled for April 14, 2012, but on February 17th, 2012, the recall was judicially invalidated by the Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals. John Cook is the mayor of El Paso and Steve Ortega (District 7) and Susie Byrd (District 2) are city council members.
The El Paso recall effort is the only known recall effort to center around LGBT issues. After the initial recall attempt was thrown out in court, a second recall attempt against John Cook was launched in April 2012.
Sufficient signatures for a recall were certified on September 22, 2011 and the election was scheduled in November 2011. The El Paso City Council requested that Governor Rick Perry approve an emergency election for April 14, 2011. Perry approved the emergency recall election on November 21, 2011. The emergency election was requested due to election deadline conflicts between the state and City of El Paso caused by a recent law passed by the Texas State Legislature to comply with the federal MOVE Act.
The recall effort is being led by El Paso pastor Tom Brown of the Word of Life Church through an organization called El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values. Brown initiated the recall after the El Paso city council voted to return health benefits to the unmarried partners of homosexual city employees. A May 2011 voter-approved ordinance had stripped these groups of their benefits, while also inadvertently taking benefits away from a number of unintended groups such as retirees. When the mayor and council overturned this ordinance, Pastor Brown called for their recall.
The recall effort was temporarily halted by a Texas court on September 13, 2011 because of a restraining order filed by Mayor Cook barring recall supporters from submitting petitions on grounds that the effort potentially violated Texas election law. Cook claimed that recall organizers used Pastor Brown's church as a platform to circulate petitions in violation of a state statute prohibiting corporations (including non-profits and churches) from contributing to recall elections. On September 15, 2011 the judge lifted the order and allowed the recall effort to proceed. County Court at Law Judge Javier Alvarez ruled that challenges to the recall based on illegalities should occur after the recall has occurred. "The court doesn't want to get in the way of an election, and that's it," Alvarez said. "I'm going to force you to say, 'We have a void election. It's going to cost the city of El Paso a lot of money, but that's what the people want."
Mayor Cook appealed the decision in Texas's Eighth District Appeals Court. The appeals case has garnered attention far outside of El Paso. Experts are watching the case because how it plays out could have election implications across the nation if it continues up the appeals ladder. The case could be a prime candidate for the US Supreme Court to take on and provide nuance to the Court's previous controversial Citizens United ruling. While Texas law prohibits corporations from contributing to recall elections, supporters of the El Paso recall say that the Citizens United ruling trumps state law - even if Pastor Brown's actions violated the statute. The Eighth Court of Appeals denied Cook's appeal on October 4, 2011, ruling that the restraining order in question had expired and it was moot. As of January 2012, Cook is appealing the lower court's decision not to halt the recall.
Mayor John Cook sued El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values seeking to halt the recall election on grounds that organizers violated Texas election law by using church resources to gather petitions. Recall organizers claimed the law in question is unconstitutional and was overruled by Supreme's Court's Citizens United ruling. The case was heard in El Paso's County Court by Judge Javier Alvarez. The hearing began in October 2011. Judge Alvarez issued a ruling on Monday November 28, 2011 allowing the recall to continue. The hearing has continued into 2012, with Cook continuing to seek sanctions against Brown for perceived violations of Texas election laws.
In January 2012, it was reported that District Attorney Jaime Esparza is considering whether to bring charges against El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values on allegations that the group violated a state law that prohibits accepting more than $100 in cash contributions.
On February 17th, 2012, The Texas Eighth Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the recall group had violated the law in its petition drive. The El Paso city clerk was ordered to decertify the recall petitions and cancel the previously scheduled recall election. The appeals court also ruled that Judge Javier Alvarez had abused his discretion when he denied Cook's request for an injunction. Tom Brown says he will appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court.
On February 22nd, 2012, a grand jury subpoenaed the recall petitions. District Attorney Jaime Esparza is considering whether to charge recall leader Tom Brown with breaking a law prohibiting corporations from making political contributions to a recall effort.
Path to the ballot
The ability to force a recall election in El Paso is laid out in the city's home rule charter. According to the recall rules set forth in that charter, 6,121 signatures are currently required to force a recall for Mayor Cook; 655 are needed for Ortega and 668 for Byrd. El Paso's city clerk verified on September 22, 2011 that 9,556 signatures had been certified for Cook, 3,400 more than the minimum required to force an election. 755 signatures were certified for Ortega and 744 were certified for Byrd.
- WATW, "Perry OKs El Paso Mayoral Recall Election," November 23, 2011
- El Paso Times, "Update: El Paso Mayor John Cook wins recall appeal ," February 17, 2012
- KFOX TV 14, "Effort To Recall Mayor Begins Tomorrow" July 17, 2011
- Bloomberg Businessweek, "El Paso Mayor Fighting Ouster Over Gay Rights Counts Legal Bills," February 9, 2012
- El Paso Inc., "Recall election could be held April 14," October 17, 2011
- KFOX TV 14, "Court Order Temporarily Halts Recall Efforts Against Mayor, City Reps" September 13, 2011
- TANO.org, "El Paso Judge OKs recall process; clerk to get petitions today," September 15, 2011
- El Paso Times, "Recall case likely to extend beyond El Paso," October 2, 2011
- El Paso Times, "El Paso Mayor John Cook denied appeal on recall signatures," October 4, 2011
- El Paso Times, "Arguments for El Paso City Council recall appeal start today," January 24, 2012
- El Paso Times, "El Paso Mayor John Cook recall effort moves ahead," November 29, 2011
- El Paso Times, "Hearing in El Paso City Council recall battle to continue," January 5, 2012
- El Paso Times, "Recall effort: Group appears to be in violation," January 18, 2012
- El Paso Times, "Grand jury subpoenas petitions for recall effort," February 24, 2012
- KVIA, "Pastor Brown Files Appeal With Texas Supreme Court To Overturn Decision Halting Recall," March 7, 2012
- El Paso Times, Recall petitions OK'd pending Mayor Cook appeal "September 23, 2011
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