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Following the passing of candidate John A. Lopez, Ruben Plata and Alberto “Beto” Vela will remain in their seats on the Mission city council.
Last Thurs. August 6, the city of Mission held a special called meeting to discuss the 2020 elections. Originally set for May of this year, the elections were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Place 2 (currently held by Plata) and Place 4 (currently held by Vela) were up for grabs this year. Vela was running unopposed, and Plata was running against Lopez, a retired government employee (with the United States Border Patrol), teacher and coach.
As the pandemic caused mass closures and a flurry of new social distancing guidelines, the Mission city council passed Resolution #1650 postponing the May 2, 2020 general election to Nov. 3, 2020 as per the suspension of provisions of the Texas Election Code by Governor Greg Abbott. A couple of weeks ago, Lopez passed away, leading several citizens to call council members and Mayor Armando O’caña about how the ballot would look in November.
When the election was postponed, the original May filing deadline for candidate applications was still valid, meaning no one else could run for the seats. City Attorney Gus Martinez presented the item during the special meeting on Thursday.
“Unfortunately we mourned the loss of Johnny Lopez who had filed to run for Place 2,” Martinez said. “His passing was unfortunate, but it did trigger some questions as to whether or not his name would remain on the ballot, and if it could not, could we cancel the election.”
An election would cost the city of Mission approximately $74,000, according to Martinez and council members. When various parts of the election code were suspended in March, the Secretary of State noted no new candidates could file to run for Texas elections even if they were suspended due to the pandemic.
“Later on there was a clarification from Keith Ingram, the director of elections [the Texas Secretary of State Elections Division] who said that the deadlines that apply to the November 3 election would apply if they were a candidate in May as it regards ineligibility, withdrawals or death,” Martinez said. “In other words, the date to be declared ineligible, withdrawn or deceased for the November election would be August 14.”
If a candidate had filed to run for office, regardless if it was in May, if their death or ineligibility occurred before Aug. 14, they would need to be removed from the ballot. The city council has no authority to override that rule, and must abide by the state authority, being the director of elections and Secretary of State.
City Secretary Anna Carrillo, who acts as the Filing Authority for Mission, posed specific questions to the Texas Secretary of State relating to this election regarding the deadline and cancellation of the election. Ruth R. Hughes responded to both regards with a confirmation that Lopez would be removed from the ballot, and Mission could move forward with the cancellation of the election legally.
Martinez sought a second opinion from the attorneys with the Texas Municipal League, who said yes, the Secretary of State was correct – because Lopez passed away before Aug. 14, he needed to be removed from the ballot, and the city could move forward with cancellation.
The only action city council could take would be the option to cancel the election given the directive from the state authority that Lopez would be removed from the ballot, and both remaining candidates would be running unopposed.
Mayor O’caña proposed several questions on the election code and legality of what they were proposing. He asked if removing a name from the ballot would make council liable for legal action.
“It does carry an offense of a Class A misdemeanor, if we fail to do that,” O’caña said. “Is that exempt?”
Martinez said that part of the code was suspended by Governor Abbott, and because the Secretary of State responded to that specific question from Carrillo there is no liability on the city of Mission’s part. O’caña asked specifically for a document confirming that the deadline was firm and their action was warranted, and the email correspondence Carrillo had with the Secretary of State was cited.
“As the Filing Authority, this is the direction they have given me,” Carrillo said.
O’caña asked about people who were wanting to apply for candidacy currently.
“There are people who have been calling me and asking me – that obviously if they had known before May that this situation was going to occur, they would have filed and applied for candidacy,” O’caña said.
Martinez said no one was allowed to file after the deadline, and this does not reopen the filing period.
“I understand that, Mayor, but none of us knew that he was going to pass away,” Martinez said. “It’s not something we can consider in hindsight. Unfortunately he did pass away and the door closed on new filings, and the state authority has told us his name should be removed. We need to decide if we should have an unopposed election or cancel it.”
Plata did his own research as well, making similar calls to the Secretary of State’s office. Plata stated the public deserved for the city to follow the law and abide by the mandates of the Texas Election Code and Secretary of State’s orders, and offered his condolences to the family of John A. Lopez.
“We don’t wish this on anybody, and I want to publicly offer my condolences to the Lopez family,” Plata said. “I will want to continue serving our community, I know we were going to run a very clean election. Once again, my condolences to the family. Mission is the place to be, we’ve just got to do our best, be professional in what we do and always follow the laws.”
Council member Jessica Ortega-Ochoa asked that at a future city council meeting, they would recognize Lopez and his family for his service to the community, noting he served on the Golf Board for several years and was an “outstanding citizen of Mission for a lifetime.”
“Each time we have an election it’s about $74,000,” Ortega-Ochoa said. “I want to thank Gus and Anna for obtaining the information that is needed for us to vote today.”
Ortega-Ochoa noted that legally citizens have a certain deadline to apply to run, and she would like to see more citizens engaged in Mission in regards to running for office.
“Unfortunately that is not the trend,” Ortega-Ochoa said. “I’m ready to vote and put this behind us and work for the greater good of Mission. We have a lot of work to do.”
Council passed ordinance #4928, declaring the unopposed candidates as certified victories and cancelling the election. Vela and Plata will continue on the city council moving forward, and will be issued their certificates of election after the Nov. 3 election date.