Redistricting remains controversial for BISD Board; Suit filed by three members over elections

Kelly Holleran May 14, 2013, 9:17am

In recently filed court documents, three candidates for the Beaumont Independent School District School Board are accusing current board members of rigging the election process to enable them to keep their seats. 

Marcelino Rodriguez, Donna Jean Forgas and Linda Marie Wiltz Gilmore filed a lawsuit April 30 in Jefferson County District Court against BISD, Woodrow Reece, Terry D. Williams, Janice Brassard, Gwen Ambres and Zenobia Randall Bush.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege the current board failed to properly re-divide the voting districts before an upcoming election. In turn, the plaintiffs have been unable to challenge the incumbants’ seats and will not be able to do so until 2015, according to the complaint.

The re-division was supposed to occur this year. Texas law requires that districts be redrawn if the most recent federal census data shows that the population of the most populous district exceeds the population of the least populous district by more than 10 percent. The 2010 federal census data showed such a deviation, the suit states.

On Feb. 21, the Board approved seven new districts and ordered an election to take place, the complaint says. The plaintiffs claim they filed applications, but each saw their applications get rejected because the Board had ordered a new election only for three of the seven new districts.

The plaintiffs fought for their right to be placed on the ballots and successfully argued that the Board had failed to timely utilize a law that would allow current members with unexpired terms to serve the remainder of their terms after the redistricting.

Realizing its mistake, the Board called a special meeting in which it attempted to undo the redistricting and to prevent the Texas Educational Code that would allow the plaintiffs to run against the Board members, according to the complaint. At the meeting, the Board agreed to revert back to 2001 election boundaries, the suit states.

“By doing so, the Board sought to rob plaintiffs of their uncontested place on the election ballot by hopefully avoiding the operation of Texas Educational Code and thereby keep the former district 1,2, and 3 incumbant trustees in office beyond May 2013, the same trustees who neglected to file for re-election,” the complaint says. “The Board’s new election order also set a filing period for candidates that had already passed, thereby precluding any new candidates from running in the next election.”

The Ninth Court of Appeals, however, ruled in opposition to the Board on March 18, ordering it to accept the plaintiffs’ applications. In addition, it ordered the Board to use its original map when dividing voting districts – not the 2001 election map, according to the complaint.

The Board elected to fight against the Court of Appeals’ ruling and filed its own declaratory judgment in Washington, D.C., asking the court to declare that its plan is legal. The court in Washington, D.C., has since asked the Board to provide additional information, which it has not yet produced, the suit states.

A D.C. judge did, however, grant a temporary restraining order that prevents the school district from conducting an election without prior clearance. Therefore, a scheduled May 11 election could not be held, the complaint says.

The Board did reschedule the election with the newly appointed 2001 districts for Nov 5, 2013, which the plaintiffs claim violates the Texas Election Code.

“Plaintiffs are the clear targets and victims of the Board and defendant trustees’ wrongful action, including BISD’s violations of the Texas Election Code and the Texas Education Code,” the suit states. “The Board majority made clear in adopting the resolution, and in other venues, its expressed intent to harm and undermine Plaintiffs’ rights in order to preserve in office until May 2015 current BISD Trustees Reece, Williams and Bush who all neglected to file for re-election.”

The plaintiffs seek an order that would declare the November election void and that declares that the Board did not have authority to cancel the May election. They also seek an order that would prohibit the Board from implementing further census-related redistricting. In addition, they seek attorneys’ fees, costs and other relief the court deems just.

Michael J. Truncale of Orgain, Bell and Tucker in Beaumont and Michael D. Getz of Beaumont will be representing them.

Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd District Court, has been assigned to the case.

Case No. E194-295

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