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La Joya councilman, mayoral candidate takes legal action on electioneering ordinance

A sitting La Joya city councilman currently running for mayor took legal action today in an attempt to prevent the city from implementing a new electioneering ordinance.

In an application for a temporary restraining order and injunction, Councilman Esequiel “Chuck” Garza alleges the ordinance — adopted earlier this month— violates Texas Election Code and “runs afoul of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

A judge granted that temporary restraining order earlier today and set a hearing for it.

That hearing will be held on Wednesday. Early voting — and presumably electioneering — starts Monday, however.

It’s not immediately clear exactly what impact that temporary restraining order will have on electioneering Monday and Tuesday.

“We need to take some time to review how it will affect next week’s election,” City Attorney Isaac Sulemana said today.

The ordinance and another electioneering ordinance that preceded it have been a point of contention on the council for weeks.

Garza, who’s running with a slate against incumbent Mayor Isidro Casanova and a rival slate, has alleged that both ordinances unfairly limit freedom of expression and hurt him and his political allies. He’s previously equated the city’s electioneering policies to voter suppression.

“They are trying to silence me so in return they silence YOUR voice! They challenge my opinions and try to chastise me so ultimately they don’t have to hear YOUR opinion,” he wrote in a statement to the Progress Times after a contentious city council meeting last week. “I am only in their way. They feel that if they can destroy me, then they can ultimately destroy the faith and hope of the La Joya Voter!”

Essentially the controversy boils down to the parking lot of the La Joya Youth Center, the town’s polling place.

Traditionally, candidates have electioneered in the parking lot of the center.

Last year, however, the council adopted an ordinance eliminating electioneering on public property — including at the center — in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Garza has previously claimed that crowds continued electioneering unabated on private properties near the center, which he said his side lacked access to.

The pandemic being over meant the city had to revise its electioneering ordinance, to eliminate language related to the coronavirus.

On Oct. 10, the council voted 4-1 to approve a new emergency ordinance regulating free speech and electioneering, which designates the La Joya Municipal Park as a place for those activities rather than the youth center.

The center — City Manager Leo Olivares, Police Chief Ramon Gonzalez and Mayor Isidro Casanova said — is a high-traffic, congested area at certain points during the day due to its proximity to La Joya High School.

That traffic poses a safety issue, Casanova and Gonzalez said.

Adopting the new rules as an emergency ordinance meant they would take effect before early voting begins Monday rather than in the middle of early voting.

Casanova described the ordinance as strictly being related to safety, and said he planned to campaign in the park himself.

Garza opposed the new ordinance and opposed it being discussed primarily behind closed doors, in executive session.

Emotions in executive session ran so high that evening that police had to intervene in an argument between Garza and Councilwoman Laura Macias’ husband, Elias, who were arguing in the parking lot.

In his application, Garza contends the new ordinance violates a portion of the Texas Election Code that prevents an entity owning or controlling a public building being used as a polling place from prohibiting electioneering on the building’s premises 100 feet from the site’s entrance.

Olivares told the Progress Times last week that he suspected the center’s parking lot may have enough room to fit campaign equipment as large as tents while remaining in compliance with that 100 feet rule.

It’s not entirely clear where campaigns will be allowed to electioneer Monday morning.

Roberto Jackson, Garza’s attorney, says he views the signed TRO as allowing electioneering at the youth center.

Sulemana, on the other hand, said the city is considering its implications.

“We’re going to be reviewing it with city administration and public safety departments,” he said.

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