By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
EL PASO, Texas – El Paso Mayor John Cook and two members of the City Council are facing a recall election for their role in overturning a voter-approved measure to terminate health care benefits for gay and unmarried partners of city employees.
The city clerk on Thursday certified 9,556 signatures, about 3,400 more than needed to prompt a May recall election for Cook. The mayor of the West Texas border city of more than 800,000 residents is challenging the recall in court.
The recall election signature drive was organized by evangelist Tom Brown, pastor of the Word of Life Church in El Paso. He also pushed the November 2010 vote to ask residents whether the city should limit health benefits to legal spouses and dependent children of city employees.
The mayor has challenged the petitions because he believes some of the signatures were obtained in violation of a Texas law that bans corporations, including churches, from participating in recall elections.
Cook broke a 4-4 tie in June, voting to throw out the ordinance passed last November. The two other council members, Beto O’Rourke and Rachel Quintana, who voted to eliminate it are not being recalled because their terms already ended.
“I predict a landslide. … People want their votes to be respected,” Brown told The Associated Press on Friday.
In June, Brown announced that he would defend the will of the voters either by asking city representatives who sympathize with his cause to reintroduce the vote in the council or by pushing for a recall election.
Byrd, who is halfway through her second term, said this is an opportunity for her to knock on the doors of her constituents and explain why she voted to restore benefits to gay and unwed couples. She said the issue “is absolutely about gays and how the community chooses to treat them.”
Brown expected the city to have the election as soon as November. Javier Chacon, elections administrator for El Paso county, explained that the deadline to file the ballots for that election has expired and they will have to wait until May 12.
Because of the way it was worded, the ordinance stripped health care benefits not only from the partners of 19 gay city workers, but also from about 100 unwed partners of city employees, some retirees and workers not legally considered city employees.
The El Paso Police Union took the ordinance to court. In May, a federal judge ruled that except for some police and fire department retirees protected by state laws, those affected by the ordinance had to lose their benefits.
The judge also stated that the language of the ordinance, regardless of the consequences, was loose enough not to make it an act of discrimination. However, he said an ordinance that targeted only gays would be discriminatory.