PGA Village opponents collected more than 14,000 extra signatures for a referendum to decide the fate of the luxury golf resort slated to be built over the Edwards Aquifer, but their work is only partially finished; the opposition is still pursuing a lawsuit alleging that the city disenfranchised 29,000 voters from the petition process when the clerk's office invalidated their signatures.
Attorneys for both the city and the anti-PGA groups are working through several voting issues, but neither party has asked for another hearing since a federal ruling July 8 that essentially froze any action the City could take on the PGA issue. The main debate now centers on whether or not the Department of Justice should approve the City's computerized verification process, something the department does for all other changes in voting procedure in Texas. The City switched to the computerized system in the early '80s, but the process has never been scrutinized by an outside agency.
The lawsuit, stemming from the first collection round — which was verified on June 6 by the City Clerk as being more than 6,000 signatures short of the 63,006 benchmark required by City Charter— remains in the hands of U.S. District Judge Fred Biery.
On July 10, before City Clerk Norma Rodriguez publicly certified the 77,419 valid signatures collected to force Council to decide the PGA Village project, she detailed the difficulties her office encountered in verifying the 428,000 pieces of information culled from all the petitions.
Illegible printing, addresses that don't match the city's voting records, and the signatures of non-registered voters, Rodriguez said, resulted in the Clerk's office discounting 22,142 signatures from the first collection. But after Save Our Aquifer, a PGA opposition group, got copies of the invalidated signatures, it discovered the clerk's office had thrown out accurate and valid petitioners. ("Voters rock the vote," Current, July 4-10). Subsequently, SOA filed a lawsuit to prevent the City from acting further on the project — other than ditching the current agreement — until Biery can determine whether the use of computers to verify voters' signatures violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
"The system that is in place is a system that is faulty," said Maria Berriozabal, an SOA member and former City councilwoman, on the verification process.
"We want things to change — not just for now, but in the future." Berriozabal said that signatures from people like her own mother, close friends, and even Terrellita Maverick (daughter of San Antonio's storied mayor Maury Maverick) were discounted by the Clerk's office because of clerical errors.
In her office's defense, Rodriguez said any "flagged" signatures were reviewed a second time by hand, with more than 7,000 names validated during the first count for the total of 56,941. The second count, which Assistant City Clerk Yolanda Ledesma said went more smoothly, garnered 20,478 valid entries, undoubtedly because there were fewer signatures to verify. Nonetheless, in both counts roughly 27 percent of the signatures collected were considered invalid.
At the City Council's special session to consider the petition, Mayor Ed Garza congratulated the anti-PGA groups on their victory, but emphasized that no next step would stop development over the aquifer. The signatures only impact this project's environmental protection controls and funding — Lumbermen's Investment Corporation would implement a taxing district to allow the developer to collect millions of dollars in tax revenues. District 7 Councilman Julián Castro, the only other council member to speak on the issue during the meeting, agreed with Garza that the City needs to find a way to make the PGA deal work for what the developers promise, and the opposition doubts, will be an economic boon for San Antonio.
Garza and Castro said they want to keep the PGA development in San Antonio, regardless of whether Council puts the current project to a vote in the fall or scraps it for an entirely new plan. If the city does toss the current ordinance, which calls for the creation of an almost-feudal taxing district controlled by the PGA and Lumbermen's, the city and the developer could negotiate an entirely new deal, thus invalidating the entire petition drive — forcing anti-PGA groups to the streets again in search of signatures.
While the city's total cost of $130,949 and 11,588 hours of work to process and verify the petitions sounds hefty, it looks small in comparison to the $57 million that could be raised over 13 years in the special taxing district for Lumbermen's if the current project is approved by voters November 5 — if there is a referendum, that is. City Council is on a break through the rest of the month, and their decision on the PGA matter doesn't have to be made until 30 days after Rodriguez presented her report, on August 8.