Religious Group Officially Files To Recall Mayor, Reps Byrd And Ortega
The religious group that fought to take away the health insurance of gay and unmarried partners of city employees has officially notified the city they're going to attempt to recall Mayor John Cook and city Reps.Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.
The organization, El Paso for Traditional Family Values has 60 days to gather enough signatures to oust the city council members. Ignacio "Nacho" Padilla, a spokesman for the group, said Monday that the recall efforts are a response to the city representatives' and mayor's vote to overturn a voter-approved ordinance meant to take away the health insurance of the city's domestic partners.
EPFTFV organized to put the ordinance on the ballot last November. It passed by 55 percent to 45 percent. City officials said the ordinance's language was vague and would also strip away the health insurance of 150 unintended people, including some retirees, independent contractors, elected officials and foster children.
After some of those unintended people and domestic partners sued the city in an effort to get it not to enforce the ordinance, federal Judge Frank Montalvo ruled that the ordinance was not unconstitutional, but city officials said the judge's ruling also warns them that taking away the health insurance of domestic partners only, would be constitutionally problematic. According to city officials, it was everyone or no one -- either the health insurance was restored to everyone, including the 150 unintended people and the domestic partners, or they all lost their medical benefits they've paid for.
To recall the council members, the group needs to gather the same number of signatures as 20 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last general election for each elected official. That's 6,189 signatures for the Mayor, 701 for Byrd and 685 for Ortega, according to records for the May 2009 general election.
After the petitioners gather the required signatures, the city clerk will have 10 days to verify that the signatures are from registered voters. If enough signatures can be verified, then the city will certify the petition and call for a recall election, which would take place next May, according to officials at the city clerk's office and County Elections Administrator Javier Chacon. The election can cost the city about $150,000 to $180,000, or slightly less, depending on if they share the cost with another entity that would require an election, too, said Chacon. That's not including how much it would cost to hold another election to replace the Cook, Byrd and Ortega.
On Monday morning, petitioners gathered outside City Hall holding sings that read "Mayor's Legacy: Fascism" and "Mayor Cooked". One of the signs had a picture of Cook's head on a pan. "The mayor has been a good guy most of his term but now he has gone over the line and he has forgotten what democracy is all about... he's supposed to represent the people, he's let us down, he's a traitor in that respect", said petitioner Manny Hinojosa, who lost a run for city council in May.
"They've reverted to name-calling and when I look at this book here, and it's the one that they're quoting from, called the new american bible, I don't see in it where Jesus told us to start calling people names. I mean, let's just stick to the issue, I have not called them names", said Cook of the petitioners. Cook said he heard the petitioners refer to him as 'Hugo Chavez', the totalitarian leader of Venezuela.
Cook, Byrd and Ortega said they stand by their vote to restore the benefits.
"Some people are asking me 'now that you know that you encited a recall effort, if you could do it over, would you change your position?' and my answer is no, I wouldn't because in my heart I don't believe that the people of El Paso had any intention of stripping healthcare benefits away from retired police officers and firefighters, from foster children, step children", said Mayor Cook.
"They are on notice that they have a moral obligation to the people to uphold their oath of office", said Ben Mendoza, who officially filed the notice to recall City Rep. Susie Byrd.
There was a seemingly awkward moment when Mendoza and the rest of the petitioners arrived to the city clerk's office to file the recall paperwork and coincidentally ran into Byrd. Mendoza said to Byrd - "It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that we are going to do a recall on you." Byrd said she understood, and Mendoza told her "it's not to be taken personally". Byrd remained smiling and said "No worries, how's it going Ben?"
"It was a very tough road, but I feel very proud of the vote, I think it's something that had to be done and I'm glad to go out and defend it to the constituents I represent", said Byrd during an interview.
There has been some concerns whether Pastor Tom Brown, who leads Word of Life Church, can participate in the recall efforts. The organization, Americans United For The Separation Of Church and State filed a complaint with the IRS, alleging Brown Ministries violated federal tax laws prohibiting churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This allegedly happened when Brown called for a recall of Cook, Byrd and Ortega on his ministry's website.
On the website for Brown Ministries, Brown makes it clear the website is registered under his name, not the ministry's. Americans United For The Separation Of Church And State said that does not matter and Brown is still violating federal tax law.
"The IRS says that a pastor or a church, during a Sunday morning service, or one of their regular services, endorse or oppose a candidate for public office. A petition drive doesn't involve any candidates, it involves a current office holder, not a candidate -- that's why we haven't broken any irs regulations", said Brown on Monday. He added two law firms had contacted him, willing to defend him free of charge.
Brown did not identify himself as one of the official petition leaders on Monday, but did advise petitioners when they were forced to rewrite some of the recall paperwork because the actual recall language and the notice to the city were not the same.
There are also concerns one of the petitioners falsely represented that the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, had taken a stand on the issue. During a news conference on Monday, Ben Mendoza, the man who officially filed to recall Byrd, introduced himself as 'the chairman of the civil rights committee for LULAC Council 132' and said he was there because he believed the civil rights of El Paso and Latino voters were violated and disenfranchised when council overturned their vote. Virginia Tena, the district director for LULAC said the chapter has not taken a stand on the issue and Mendoza may be speaking for his council alone, if that.
Elvia Hernandez, one of LULAC's Immediate Past State Officers and President of Council #4875 sent a statement which read:
"Please do not include our LULAC District IV membership among those members endorsing the recall of our Mayor and City Council members. They are on their own personally and we do not support their efforts....We are not a divisive group such as Pastor Brown and his group. Thank you for your consideration of our stand on this issue."
The benefits debate has sparked strong emotions. "This is payback time, this is time to correct the wrongs that the Mayor and his group have done to the citizens of El Paso", said William Ward, a petitioner.
City Rep. Steve Ortega said he's not afraid of being recalled. "The majority isn't always right, you can go back to the civil rights debate, you can go back to the bible where the majority of people wanted Jesus killed... hovering over all of this, is that you treat everyone equally, and today or 25 years from now I want to know that I was on the side of equality", he said.
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