This story has been updated.
The Fourth Court of Appeals has sided with the City of San Antonio in a dispute over the time allowed the City Clerk to verify petition signatures submitted by a group seeking to have voters decide if the City should require employers to give paid sick leave.
Late Friday the court denied a request from attorneys for the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) to order the City Clerk’s Office to count and verify the signatures by Monday, June 18. The group says the delay puts its ability to get the item on the November ballot in jeopardy.
City officials maintained that the clerk has until June 22 – 20 business days – to verify the 144,000 signatures submitted by Working Texas for Paid Sick Time. TCRP attorneys had argued that the verification process should be completed in 20 calendar days.
“The City Clerk continues her diligence in verifying the signatures submitted with the group’s petitions,” city officials stated in a news release announcing the court’s decision.
The business-versus-calendar day question comes from ambiguity in the City Charter.
Beth Stevens, lead counsel and voting rights director with TCRP, had argued that the Charter’s language stated that the Clerk had until Wednesday, June 13, to meet the deadline.
“We are applying the same protocol that we applied for the last three petitions,” said Elizabeth Provencio, first assistant attorney for the City, on Thursday, referring to petitions submitted by the firefighters union in April for which the City Clerk verified more than 60,000 signatures.
Signatures are verified using City protocol, which includes numbering each signature page and manually entering the name and date of birth for each submission into the Bexar County Elections Office Voter Elections Management and Compliance System, and making sure it proceeds quickly by employing additional resources when needed, she said.
If approved by voters, the ordinance would require employers in the city to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at six or eight days annually depending on the size of the business. It would also allow parents to take time off to care for sick children.
According to the supporting documents submitted to the court with the petition, back-and-forth conversation between representatives with TCRP and the City Clerk’s Office regarding the statutory interpretation of “20 days,” began on June 5.
A phone conversation between Stevens and City Clerk Leticia Vacek ended with Vacek indicating that the City Clerk’s office would likely not complete the review of petition signatures before the 20-day deadline, followed by written correspondence indicating that Texas “case law provides for a ministerial act, such as signature verification, to be completed within a reasonable time,” by June 22, according to a letter from City Attorney Andy Segovia addressed to Stevens on June 12.
In response, Stevens argues that the “plain meaning” of 20 days is 20 calendar days, and that language throughout the charter indicates a clear distinction between business days and calendar days.
“If the drafters of that provision of the charter means business days, they would have put business days,” she told the Rivard Report.
Extending the signature verification deadline puts the petition at risk of not making it on the November ballot because City Council has up to 60 days to place the item on the ballot, Stevens said, and the 60th day after June 22 falls beyond Aug. 20 – the last day to place items on the next ballot.
But if the clerk certified the petition next Thursday, the 60-day timeline makes the Council’s deadline to certify Aug. 20. If that doesn’t happen, the petition could not be certified until August 2, which will put the timeline into October, well past the deadline to get on the November ballot, she said.
The City Clerk’s office deployed additional resources to count the verification of signatures, including hiring temporary employees to assist in the review of signatures, Procencio said.
“We have been in discussion with the lawyers that represent the petitioning group over the course of the last few days to do everything we could to assure them that we have supplemented resources to make sure this proceeds as diligently as it can,” Provencio said.