San Antonio City Council on Thursday placed on the May ballot a proposed city charter amendment that would decriminalize abortion and marijuana possession and includes four other police reforms.
Despite a pending legal effort to separate elements of the so-called Justice Charter, council members voted to place all six of its provisions on the May 6 ballot under one policing-focused measure: Proposition A.
The council’s action is the latest step in what is expected to be a fierce and expensive political battle, pitting anti-abortion groups and the police union — who argue the measure will let crimes go unpunished and increase crime — against police reform activists, who say it will reduce the jail population and save lives.
City Attorney Andy Segovia repeatedly reminded community members in attendance that City Council was required by state law to place it on the ballot because the Justice Charter was certified by the city clerk.
Even though Segovia deemed the key provisions of the Justice Charter “unenforceable” under state law, City Council had to approve the ballot, he said. Council did not vote “on the merits of the petition. … That will be up to voters.”
The measure was approved without discussion by council members, but Manny Pelaez (D8), John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10) were purposely absent from the dais during the vote.
“The three of us walked off in concert to send a message: We won’t be participating in a vote that puts an illegal and unenforceable item on the ballot,” Pelaez told the San Antonio Report.
None of the councilmen moved to take the measure off the consent agenda, which is typically how members signal opposition.
The amendments would decriminalize low-level marijuana possession, end enforcement of abortion laws, ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds, establish a city “justice director” position and expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes.
Except for creating a justice director, these measures are inconsistent with current state law, so the city could not enforce them even if approved by voters, Segovia said. “It’s just clear-cut under the law.”
However, there could be legal changes that would make the charter amendment provisions enforceable, he said.
If the Justice Charter is approved and the city doesn’t enforce it, the city — and state law — may face another legal challenge from activists, said Ananda Tomas, founder and executive director of ACT 4 SA, the local police reform nonprofit leading the Justice Charter effort.
“This is definitely something that we’re exploring at this point,” Tomas said.
The local police union is also skeptical that the provisions won’t be enforced, said Danny Diaz, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association.
“The City of Austin had a similar proposition,” Diaz said. “The citizens were told there that it is unenforceable. The officers of the Austin Police Department are having to enforce that petition that was passed.”
Last year, five Texas cities, including Austin, decriminalized low-level marijuana possession. Austin’s measure also included a ban on no-knock warrants, but the ballot proposition passed by voters was not a charter amendment.
Some people who spoke to council ahead of the vote, both for and against the measure, said Segovia showed bias when explaining the city’s analysis of the amendments.
“The good news is when both sides are accusing me of advocating, that tells me that we’re hitting the target in terms of neutrality and being impartial,” Segovia told the San Antonio Report after the vote.
As approved, the ballot measure will be 432 words long and lists misdemeanor crimes for which police could issue citations but not make arrests: possession of less than 4 ounces of a controlled substance, driving without a valid license, property theft less than $750, graffiti with damage less than $2,500 and criminal mischief with damage under $750.
“We tried as best we could to summarize a long amendment,” Segovia said.
But the language could intimidate voters into voting against it, Tomas said, and it includes confusing exceptions.
ACT 4 SA and other progressive groups sent a letter to the mayor and council members Wednesday evening asking to shorten the ballot language, removing that list of misdemeanors and a description of the justice director position.
“It’s a lot to look through. People are going to skim and there’s going to be those buzzwords,” Tomas said. The text is confusing “especially if it’s not translated correctly for our Spanish speakers.”
Meanwhile, the proposed charter amendment is facing a legal challenge at the Texas Supreme Court from the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life Inc.
The group has requested that the city reject the proposed ballot language and instead require a vote on each provision individually. The petition is pending, but the court issued an order Thursday morning that requires both parties to provide a status report to the court next week outlining the ballot language.
Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office urged the court to side with opponents. Solicitor General Judd Stone wrote Wednesday in a letter to the court that the Justice Charter “flagrantly violates” a state law prohibiting multi-subject charter amendments.
Now that it’s officially on the ballot, Segovia said it would likely be “very difficult” to carve it into separate propositions.
“We argued that the City Council needs to put the petition on the ballot as presented to the voters,” he said. “We’ll wait to see what the Supreme Court says.”
Regardless of the outcome, both sides are gearing up for a prolonged fight that could last beyond the May 6 election if the Justice Charter is approved.
“We’re going to do our best to educate voters on exactly what these policies are, what they mean [and] the impact they can have,” Tomas said.
The union will be knocking on voters’ doors, too, Diaz said. “It’s time to get to work and educate the community. We’ll be against it.”