The University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC) – the city’s public hospital wrapped around the marketing banner of a medical campus – is holding meetings seemingly trying to convince the community that it needs $346 million in taxpayer monies to give El Pasoans a world-class medical facility. Seemingly trying to convince voters of the need because what UMC is doing is creating the illusion that El Paso voters support being taxed some more so that the three votes UMC needs at commissioners court on September 12 have the support of El Paso voters.
What UMC officials are doing is creating the necessary narrative to provide cover to three elected officials – county judge Ricardo Samaniego and county commissioners Carlos Leon and Carl Robinson to vote yes on September 12 to the $346 million in non-voter approved public debt. Commissioners Iliana Holguin and David Stout have argued taking UMC’s public debt request to the voters. Samaniego seemingly has taken the position that the public outreach is about learning more about UMC’s request before he makes up his mind, but the reality is that all indications point to Samaniego being the third vote needed by UMC to issue the debt.
At least two petition drives have been started but it is unclear whether the two are connected or independent of each other. Vince Perez filed paperwork suggesting that he is running a petition drive in opposition to UMC’s tax debt request. Former city representative Michiel Noe has also filed paperwork for a petition drive. Noe’s Specific Purpose Committee, the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government launched the website El Paso Petition this week to begin collecting signatures in opposition to UMC.
The Libre Initiative has been promoting the El Paso Petition drive in recent days, encouraging El Paso voters to sign the petition in opposition to UMC’ request for public debt. The Libre Initiative is grassroots non-profit organization seeking to empower Latino voters. It operates in nine states and has a presence in El Paso. In 2011, the non-profit Freedom Partners, backed by the Koch brothers, gave Libre $10 million. 
According to the El Paso Petition, it needs 25,000 signatures of El Paso voters by August 25 to force UMC to take its public debt request to the voters. It is unclear how many signatures they have collected.
The latest petition drive, although using the internet as a foundation for the initiative makes little use of it. The internet, as a vehicle for gathering signatures for petition drives has been used in El Paso since 2000. I know, I was the first to do so.
On October 8, 2000, I penned a guest editorial to the El Paso Times.  In it I wrote about how the internet can be leveraged to successfully force a government entity to respond to the wishes of the electorate. In the editorial I explained how I was part of an effort to force the El Paso Community College (EPCC) to rollback its tax increase of 15.5 percent through Rollbacktaxes.com. Through the website, we were able to collect and verify over 1,000 signatures in the first seven days of the website’s launch. I argued in the editorial that “cyber-activism has given the average ‘Joe’ the ability to take on and challenge the status quo.  Although the effort failed due to a technical error, missing the deadline by one day, the effort proved the effectiveness of the internet as an activists’ vehicle. Coincidently, it was the effort through the internet against EPCC that forced UMC to reconsider its own tax increase in 2000 and look for ways to cut costs.  And, although the EPCC petition drive failed in the end, the number of signatures that were collected forced EPCC to reconsider issuing more debt the following year.
The power of the internet lies within the tools it can leverage. The El Paso Petition is using part of this by allowing interested voters to download and print the petition themselves, cutting the printing costs of the petition drive. Much like we did in 2000.
However, it is missing an important component in that part of any petition drive is encouraging and sustaining interest in the process by readily showing how many verified signatures have been collected. We did this on the EPCC petition drive in 2000. Not only does this encourage the participation of the voters but it puts the three elected officials needed by UMC on September 12 on notice.
In 2000, we did not have the ability to allow voters to look up their voter registrations numbers and for petition organizers to verify the signatures that were collected online. Nonetheless, I created a voter database then that allowed us to quickly verify the signatures we collected and discard those that we were unable to verify and update the signature count on the website daily. Today, with El Paso Votes, anyone can look up their voter registration information.
Without readily knowing how many signatures have been collected, it is difficult to motivate voters to seek out and sign the petition and to force Leon, Robinson and Samaniego to think carefully about how they plan to vote on September 12. Without the voters forcing an election, it will only take three votes to allow UMC to add more to El Paso’s tax burden.
- Mary Jordan and Ed O’Keefe, “Koch brothers make push to court Latinos, alarming many Democrats,” The Washington Post, April 30, 2015.
- Martín Paredes, “Internet aids rollback effort,” Guest Editorial, El Paso Times, October 8, 2000, 11A.
- Paredes, “Internet aids rollback,” 11A.
- Paredes, “Internet aids rollback,” 11A.