The Ballot Mess: How one Austin lawyer caused so much havoc in Nueces County
On Thursday reports that a ballot measure involving Nueces County Emergency Services District Number 2 was left off the ballots in 3 precincts, all which were located North Padre Island. The immediate question was raised as to how such a thing could happen and if this was done intentionally in hopes that it would never be discovered? While we don’t know the answer to the latter question, we do at least now have some insight into how the critical omission occurred. The blame lies with an Austin lawyer who duped not only the voters of Nueces County, but those who risk their lives to protect them.
Ken Campbell represents political subdivisions throughout the State of Texas, including emergency services districts and municipalities. He is also a registered lobbyist for the State Association of Fire and Emergency Districts, Travis County Emergency Services District No. 14 and the village of Briarcliff. He has even argued some pretty impressive cases and has found a niche in the highly competitive world of legal practice. You would think that Ken Campbell would catch onto something missing—especially an important ballot measure that could have ostensibly raised money for firefighting equipment. But somehow, three voting precincts got overlooked.
The Nueces County Emergency Services District Number 2 serves the politically active communities of Flour Bluff and North Padre Island in the City of Corpus Christi. They serve as their own taxing entity that has the authority to ask the public to approve tax hikes for services that they render. Nueces County ESD 2 serves as the primary backup fire department for the city and it recently came out that they were in desperate need of some new equipment.
What would the new funding cost taxpayers? It would have raised the ESD’s tax rate one and half cents per hundred dollars of valuation and like with anything and everything, some find themselves for it and some find themselves against the proposition. Proponents agree that the emergency services district needs the additional funding and support from taxpayers to buy a special washer and dryer that is required by mandate to clean their protective gear from cancer causing residue along with other equipment such as updated radio and communications equipment and a new pickup. Opponents of the measure say that they feel the entity is just a form of double taxation and that the services provided are redundant and already adequately managed by city services which they already pay for. This funding proposition would have told political wonks a lot about exactly how much the community supports the ESD or whether or not it should be dissolved completely. But that question will have to wait for another day.
Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands was adamant that this was not any fault of hers or her staff. She ran on a platform to clean things up and from the looks of it that is exactly what she has been doing. But this discovery on Thursday has people wondering what is really going on.
Sands says that the process of getting ballots into the hands of the voters is a complicated route and she is right. If the taxing entity wants to hold and election, they contact the County Clerk. From there the long and complicated road begins. There will be what is called a “Notice of Election” and wording for the measure will be typed up and added to the ballot in both English and Spanish. A programmer sets it all up and in the end, somewhere between 6 to 8 pages of forms are filled out for each election and each entity. Everything then goes back to the entity and gets the once over. Approvals are made, signatures are penned and the entity then verifies the ballot is correct.
“He [Ken Campbell], called me and said ‘we need to make this work at all cost,’” Sands told The Southside Light on Friday. “So, we went through the process and set it up for them just like we are supposed to do.”
Sands, who is a passionate person about her role immediately strikes you as two things: honest to a fault and sincere. She is a defender of her staff, people like her programmer Eric Andreu Gutierrez, who inputs the information provided to the County Clerk into the system.
“The only person I ever had contact with from ESD 2 was their attorney,” says Gutierrez. “At no point was I ever contacted by Chief Scott or the Fire Commissioners about this election, only their attorney.”
That attorney, Ken Campbell made a serious mistake. According to both Sands and the Secretary of State’s office, the final person to sign off on the ballots are the taxing entities themselves. While it isn’t known if the Nueces County Fire Commissioners actually saw the ballots prior to them being released to the public, it is known with all certainty that their attorney, Ken Campbell not only saw the ballots, but also approved them with his signature. That move gave County Clerk Kara Sands and her staff the go-ahead to move forward with the election and the ballots as they were approved by a representative of the entity.
What is concerning is that Ken Campbell is supposed to know the precincts in the area that he represents or at least you would think that he would. But as we learned on Thursday, he obviously doesn’t and the Nueces County Fire Commissioners just let him go about virtually un-checked. That lack of guardianship is what led to this whole mess.
It isn’t exactly sure when the problem was first noticed but on Thursday, it became clear that the public and voters in the politically active North Padre area were furious. Nearly simultaneously, the Southside Light Newspaper and the Island Moon Newspaper broke the story which unraveled fairly quickly. By 10:00 p.m. local television news had latched onto the story and by morning, it was tucked away beneath the endless stacks of other stories that cycle their way through the news day. But the problem didn’t go away and in fact, questions surrounding the great mistake grew even more and more concerning.
By noon, it was clear that the ballots were going to be what they were going to be and that the measure would appear on Flour Bluff ballots and not on ones out on North Padre Island. So what could be done?
A spokesperson with the Secretary of State’s legal office had confirmed that the ballots could not be changed at this point and that the election was “already baked,” according to the agency.
Stephen Chang, an official spokesperson with the Secretary of State told the Southside Light that the ballots that had already been cast would be counted as such. However, County Clerk Kara Sands added that the proposition concerning the matter would now become a “moot election,” meaning that votes for or against this measure will not even be counted either way.
It is likely that they measure will make its way back on voters ballots in the future and most likely in the November 2020 race, when more voters typically head to the polls—which could be either good or bad for the proposal. The real question is if Ken Campbell will be the one making sure it gets there and if the Nueces County Fire Commissioners are able to handle their business effectively and make sure that their attorney is doing his job? For Nueces County voters, that could be the long pole in the tent.
Editors Note: As of Friday evening Ken Campbell had not made a formal comment comment on the matter to the Southside Light; All information regarding procedures and documents proving validation of the ballots has been obtained and verified by the Southside Light.