Most recently, a recall signature drive was launched against Joe Molinar after the city council reprimanded him for harassing a female city staff member. The recall of Molinar failed after the deadline to submit the required signatures passed without signatures being submitted.
Last week a notice of intent to recall Cassandra Hernandez was filed by Irene Armendariz. The collection of signatures is ongoing. Hernandez is at least the eleventh city representative to be recalled in the last 40 years. Although there are regular threats of recalls, many recall attempts fail shortly after the paperwork is filed with the city clerk or the recall leaders fail to collect the necessary signatures. Others, like the recall announcement against Luis Sariñana, are in retaliation to another recall petition drive and fail immediately after no signatures are collected.
However there have been several recall attempts where sufficient signatures are turned in to the city clerk but are either rejected as “insufficient” or are dismissed by a judge on legal issues. Each dismissal of the signatures collected has been controversial.
Three former city officials, John Cook, Susie Byrd and Paul Escobar, each faced two recall attempts. Dee Margo, Larry Medina, Joe Molinar, Cortney Niland, Steve Ortega and Larry Romero each faced recalls. All failed. The Hernandez recall signature collection is ongoing. In 1980, community activist Bob Jones sought to recall the entire city council after they refused to order a feasibility study for the takeover of the El Paso Electric Company by the city.
Takeover Controversy Of Electric Utility Leads To Recall Threat
The earliest known recall attempt of city council members was in October 1980 when Bob Jones, the general coordinator of the group, Fair Electric Rates Now (FERN), announced he was looking at recalling the members of city council over their vote to deny a feasibility study looking into taking over the El Paso Electric Company. FERN, which was formerly known as the Utility Consumers for Rate Reduction, was advocating for the city to takeover the El Paso Electric Company to save the city’s electric utility users from having to pay, what they characterized as high electric rates.
Then-mayor Tom Westfall and three city council members voted against funding the $100,000 feasibility study assessing whether the city could take over the electric utility. The three city representatives, then referred to as alderman were David Escobar, who made the motion to deny the feasibility study, and aldermen Jim Scherr and Orlando Fonseca. Although the mayor and the three councilmembers voted against the feasibility study, Jones sought to recall the whole city council.
Two weeks after the vote to deny the feasibility study, Escobar and Fonseca said they would reconsider their vote after both were criticized by the Mexican-American Democrats (MAD) and other Mexican-American groups for denying the feasibility study. Tom Westfall and Jim Scherr said they would not change their votes, with Westfall saying he would veto any attempt to allow the feasibility study to move forward. However, Escobar said that the pressure from the Mexican American groups were irrelevant because they “did not support him” during the elections.
A second vote on the feasibility study failed again on a 4-3 vote on October 21, 1980. Fonseca changed his vote in favor of the feasibility study after he received “pressure” from the Mexican American community to do so. However, Jim Divis, who voted two weeks before in support of the feasibility study changed his vote and voted against it. Joining Fonseca in supporting the electric utility feasibility study were Pat Haggerty and Polly Harris. Escobar, Scherr and Westfall joined Divis in voting against it.
Although Jones had threatened the recall of the city council over the lack of support for the feasibility study looking into a municipal take over of the electric utility, he did not launch one. The next recall involved the threat of eminent domain against a vulnerable Hispanic community to make way for a medical complex.
The Recall of Larry Medina
On May 6, 2002, Citizens For Good Government, a group led by Jaime O. Perez launched a recall effort against then-city representative Larry Medina. Citizens For Good Government needed 1,239 signatures from Medina’s district to force a recall election.
Citizens for Good Government had collected signatures the year before to keep the city from raising its tax rate to 11.8%. The Citizens For Good Government group had been joined by United Taxpayers of El Paso, run by Orlando Fonseca in collecting the signatures necessary for freezing the city’s tax rate increase at 8%. The tax rollback effort required 30,025 valid signatures to succeed. The two groups were only able to verify about 29,290 signatures by the deadline. Because the two groups were short by 735 votes, Fonseca refused to submit his signatures to the city arguing that it would be a “waste of taxpayers funds” to validate signatures that would not lead to the tax rate freeze. Perez disagreed with Fonseca, arguing that the two groups needed to “follow through with the process,” even if it required submitting an incomplete set of signatures.
Jaime O. Perez then launched a recall effort against Medina because as the recall petition stated, “Medina had failed to defend the interests of his constituents and abused his discretion.” Central to Medina’s recall effort was his support of the Border Health Institute’s (BHI) threatened use of eminent domain on homeowners in the targeted community.
For his part Medina told the El Paso Times on July 1, 2002, that “Jaime Perez is evil politics.” Medina added that “Jaime Perez is very dangerous because he is articulate, because he is educated (and) because people tend to believe what he says.”
Then-El Paso County Democratic Party’s chairman, Rick Melendrez issued a statement from the party stating that the recall of Medina “is ridiculous at this time.” The Democratic Party was firmly behind Medina. Recently Michael Apodaca, the chairman of the El Paso Democratic Party issued a letter condemning the organizer of the recall attempt against Cassandra Hernandez, Irene Armendariz-Jackson.
In retaliation for the Medina recall, another recall petition was launched by Carlos Sandoval against Luis Sariñana, an ally of Perez. Sandoval soon after canceled the recall of Sariñana without providing an explanation.
On July 1, 2002, Perez submitted 300 pages of signatures to the city clerk’s office. The city had ten days to determine whether there were at least 1,239 signatures to force Medina to face a recall election. Medina told the news media that he would fight the recall, “and launch legal action” against Perez. On July 3, city officials declared the signatures “insufficient” without counting them. The petition, which had about 3,000 signatures, was deemed “insufficient” by the city because it lacked a notarized affidavit on each page that “each signature is that of the person whose name it purports to be”.
Eleven days after the city rejected the signatures, Perez filed 315 notarized pages containing the signatures of about 3,500 people.
While the city was processing the signatures, El Paso Sheriff’s investigators were investigating Perez for alleged violations of the Texas Election Code. The El Paso Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation into Perez after an El Paso Times report alleged that the website used by Perez’ group violated the election code as a corporate in-kind contribution towards the effort. (See disclosure below) Medina also filed a civil lawsuit accusing Perez of violating the election code. A similar allegation would derail the 2009 recall of a mayor and two city representatives.
On July 11, 2002, the city rejected the second set of signatures submitted by Perez. Of the 315 pages of signatures submitted, the city declared that only 13 pages carried the notarized affidavit that was required. The other 302 pages did not have the notarized affidavit, according to city officials.
After the city rejected the first set of signatures for not having the appropriate notarized statement, Perez and his group collected additional signatures which included the required affidavit. However, the amended signatures were insufficient to force the recall. After the second petition was rejected, Larry Medina said that he wasn’t “surprised” the signatures were rejected.
The El Paso Police Public Integrity Unit opened an investigation into the recall effort in February 2003. Perez posted an open letter online addressed to then-police chief Carlos Leon. Perez wrote in the letter that the police investigation was “harassment intended to redirect” attention away from Perez’ campaign. Perez was running for mayor.
The police and sheriff investigations resulted in no criminal charges being filed. In 2004, Medina settled his lawsuit against Perez. The terms of the lawsuit settlement were not disclosed.
Larry Medina was a controversial elected official holding and running for several offices. Medina told the El Paso Times on June 9, 2002, that “all I’m guilty of is supporting a children’s hospital and the BHI.” Medina added that the “recall process is an extremely important part of being a free nation, but it should be used only to get crooked officials out of office.”
On February 19, 2013, Larry Medina was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison for public corruption. The same day, federal Judge Frank Montalvo sentenced David Escobar, the city representative that voted against the 1980 electric utility feasibility study, to 41 months in prison. Escobar and Medina were part of the FBI’s 2004 criminal investigation into public corruption in El Paso. Perez was again leading the next recall attempt of a city representative.
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The Paul Escobar Recall
On December 10, 2003, Robert Barragan notified the city clerk formally that he was gathering signatures to recall Paul Escobar. Jaime Perez and his group, Citizens For Good Government, were helping Barragan. The reason for the recall, according to the documents filed, was “malfeasance in office.” The recall documents alleged that Escobar had failed “to submit timely financial reports,” failed “to continuously live in the District” and “failed to keep regular office hours.” Escobar is related to David Escobar.
Barragan needed to collect 503 valid signatures to recall Escobar. Escboar responded to the recall effort by telling the El Paso Times on December 30, 2003, that he would “fight tooth and nail” against the attempt to remove him from office.
On January 8, 2004, city officials rejected the petition signatures submitted by Barragan and Perez after they determined that only 499 of the 807 signatures were valid. According to the officials, the petition was four signatures shy of the required 503. Escobar told the El Paso Times on January 9, 2004, after the signatures were rejected, that “of course, Jaime Perez, Eddie Holguin and Barragan” were going to blame the rejection of the signatures as “something underhanded.”
While the city was reviewing the amended petition, Robert Barragan filed a police complaint with the El Paso Police Department alleging that Paul Escobar was harassing him, “in person,” by “telephone,” and that Escobar had “demanded” that Barragan withdraw the recall petition.
On January 16, 2004, the amended petition was rejected by city officials because, according to them, the “signatures resubmitted” on January 9, were invalid “because Barragan did not sign the sheets twice, once upon completion and once when notarized.”
Although Barragan had complained about harassment by Escobar, Barragan would later ally with Escobar just a few days later ending a second recall attempt against Escobar.
The Second Paul Escobar Recall
Jaime Perez and his Citizens For Responsible Government group filed a new 30-page petition seeking to remove Escobar on January 26, 2004. The second set of petition signatures included 603 signatures. However, Robert Barragan, who was a leader in the first effort to force Escobar into a recall election, demanded that Perez withdraw the signatures he had submitted a few days before. Barragan submitted a letter to the city clerk that he was “withdrawing any petition” submitted without his consent.
However, the city clerk certified the signatures recalling Paul Escobar on February 5, 2004. City officials determined that 519 signatures were valid.
On February 17, 2004, the city council called for an investigation by the city attorney’s office into the petitions submitted for the recall of Escobar. On February 20, city officials filed a lawsuit against Robert Barragan and Jaime Perez. The city asked district judge Luis Aguilar to issue a declaratory judgement stopping the city from holding the recall election. Barragan had alleged that his signature had “been forged in several places.”
Perez, who had three previous petition drives rejected by the city, said that the city’s strategy had become, if “we can’t stop them at the city clerk level,” the city “would go to court” and “make allegations.” Perez added that the city was “playing legal games in a strategy to just draw things out.” On March 5, 2004, Perez announced he was withdrawing from the recall effort against Escobar citing that the judge in the case had ruled that the leader of the effort was Barragan and not Perez.
On April 1, 2004, 66 days after Barragan demanded the withdrawal of the signatures submitted by Perez that were validated by the city clerk, Paul Escobar urged city council members to support him, allowing him to use his discretionary funds to build a fence around a six-and-a-half-acre dump on Cheryl Ladd. Instead of using Escobar’s discretionary funds, the city council voted to pay for the fence with city funds and placed a lien on the property to recoup the expense. Barragan told the El Paso Times on April 2, 2004, that after he launched the petition drive against Escobar, it “got Escobar’s attention.” Barragan said that is when he tried to stop the petition drive, accusing Jaime Perez of taking it over. The next recall attempt was the result of the controversial ballpark that saw the city hall building demolished.
The First John Cook Recall
Before Barragan and Perez had their fallout and after both launched the recall against Paul Escobar, they filed paperwork seeking to recall John Cook on January 12, 2004. They also sought to recall Dan Power. Perez did not submit signatures for the recalls, ending both efforts. The next recall attempt would come two years later.
The 2006 Chihuahuas Ballpark Recalls
In 2006, three city representatives were targeted for recall. Organizers attempted to collect signatures to recall Susie Byrd, Beto O’Rourke and Steve Ortega. They did not turn in the required number of signatures. Byrd asked supporters to rally behind her and discouraged voters from signing the petition. This was the first of two recall attempts announced against Byrd and Ortega. The second attempt, three years later, would become the most controversial.
In the case of Beto O’Rourke, community activist Carmen Felix announced she was starting a recall of Beto O’Rourke on May 23, 2006. Although Felix announced she had collected 978 signatures, she did not submit them to the city clerk by the deadline.
The Same-Sex Benefits Controversy: John Cook, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega Recalls
On a vote of seven-to-one city council voted in August 2009 to allow city benefits to unmarried and same-sex partners. The vote was controversial with several clergy voicing their opposition to the measure. Tom Brown, the pastor of Word of Life Church, organized a group to overturn the city’s benefits to domestic partners. Brown and several others launched a successful initiative petition signature collection effort that forced the city to put a measure on the ballot limiting the city’s extension of benefits to unmarried couples. The measure, approved by voters, prohibited the city from providing domestic-partner benefits to unmarried couples.
On November 2, 2010, 55% of the voters voted to approve Brown’s measure ending domestic partner benefits to unmarried couples. City officials, however, argued that the voter approved measure would impact 200 people, including retirees. Among those affected were 19 same-sex and unmarried couples, in addition to the city council members who also lost benefits.
After the voters approved the measure, a group of unmarried city employees filed a lawsuit against the city on constitutional grounds arguing that the voter approved measure was unconstitutional. On May 20, 2010, federal judge Frank Montalvo ruled that the city could not overturn the voter-approved city ordinance banning domestic-partner benefits.
On June 14, 2011, city council voted on a measure introduced by then-mayor John Cook restoring benefits to everyone, including same-sex and unmarried couples in defiance of the voter approved measure. Then city representatives Rachel Quintana, Beto O’Rourke, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega voted to restore benefits. Cook broke the tie vote. Emma Acosta, Eddie Holguin, Ann Morgan Lilly and Carl Robinson voted against the measure arguing they would be overturing the will of the voters. O’Rourke and Quintana were leaving office soon after and would be replaced by Michiel Noe and Cortney Niland a few weeks later.
After the city council vote, Tom Brown announced he would seek to recall Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.
On June 28, 2011, Tom Brown launched a recall petition drive against Susie Byrd, John Cook and Steve Ortega. During the 2002 petition drive against Larry Medina, Cook published an editorial in the El Paso Times. In the June 16, 2002 editorial, Cook argued that recalls have a “corrosive impact” on the community. Cook was asking Perez to drop his petition against Larry Medina.
On July 18, 2011, the effort to recall the three was officially launched. To recall Cook, the organizers needed to collect 6,100 signatures and about 650 signatures each to recall Byrd and Ortega. About a month later, then-District Attorney Jaime Esparza said that he received a complaint about the tactics used by Brown to collect the signatures and had launched an investigation. Cook had previously said that Brown was violating IRS rules prohibiting non-profits from participating and the election code by using churches to collect the signatures for the recall.
Cook tried to stop the collection of signatures by filing a lawsuit asking for a restraining order against Brown and his supporters arguing that they had violated IRS and the election code with the recall. The judge refused to stop the signature collection.
IRS rules prohibit non-profits from actively engaging in political activities.
By January 17, 2012 the recall against Byrd, Cook and Ortega remained in limbo because of court delays. That day, Jaime Esparza launched an investigation into Brown and his group, saying he would consider bringing criminal charges. The latest issue was cash contributions allegedly accepted by the group, Traditional Family Values, who had taken over the recall effort. According to Esparza’s office, “accepting cash contributions greater than $100” was a Class A misdemeanor. The group had reported accepting $1,490 in contributions towards the recall effort.
Meanwhile, Cook took his case to the Texas 8th Court of Appeals after Judge Javier Alvarez had previously ruled that the signature collection could continue. However, because the group had submitted sufficient signatures for forcing a recall election against Byrd, Cook and Ortega, the city council on January 31 was forced to set an election date for April 14, 2012, although the appeals court was still considering Cook’s appeal. In addition to the IRS prohibition, and the allegations of cash contributions, another allegation was also being investigated, the participation of Texas corporation, the non-profit church, in violation of Texas election law.
On February 17, 2012, the Texas 8th Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Cook, ordering that the city cancel the recall election. The Appeals court ruled that Tom Brown’s Word of Life Church and the El Pasoans For Traditional Family Values Political Action Committee (PAC) violated Texas Election law. Specifically, the court ruled that Word of Life Church is a Texas corporation and that the use of its website and the church’s building to promote and collect signatures violated the law. The ruling added that the PAC was not properly registered.
The recall elections against Byrd, Cook and Ortega were over. On March 8, 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed the Tom Brown Ministries as an “anti-gay hate group.” Cook was forced in May 2012 to seek help to pay his legal bills of about $310,000 because the city council refused to pay for his legal expenses. By July 2013, Cook reported he owed a little over half a million dollars in legal fees. The city council again refused to pay his legal expenses. Meanwhile, Cook continued to litigate against Brown in civil court seeking to recover his legal expenses from Brown.
The legal back-and-forth between Brown and Cook continued for years. In 2016, the Texas Attorney General filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the civil suit Cook had filed against Brown for attorney’s fees. In the court filing, the Texas AG said that Brown and his supporters “acted legally in 2011” when they sought to recall Byrd, Cook and Ortega. A previous Texas Appeals court ruling in 2012 had found that Brown and his group violated Texas election law.
We asked John Cook for comment about the controversy. In an email yesterday, Cook wrote that “it is my opinion that the case never would have gone to court had it not been for Brown’s insistence that he and his church had the right to circulate recall petitions in the church and use their website to advocate for my recall.” He added, “the law prohibits corporations from any such action and his church is a corporation.”
In May 2016, Tom Brown and John Cook settled their lawsuit. The terms of the settlement were not released. At the time of the settlement, Cook reported owing over $700,000 in attorney’s fees, although the settlement paid for some of those fees. In August 2016, Tom Brown disclosed publicly that his church paid Cook $418,750 to settle the case. Cook, in his email declined to offer more details citing the terms of the settlement against disclosure, however, Cook wrote “I was able to satisfy the law firm by signing over the Brown check to them, but can tell you that amount did not cover the entire legal costs.” Cook added that “firm generously let me off the hook for the remainder.”
Although Cook’s court battle ended the recall efforts against him, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega neither participated on Cook’s court battle. According to Cook, “Suzy and Steve didn’t want to join the legal battle” because “they decided it would be better to let the voters decide if they should be recalled.” The city clerk certified the signatures and the city council set a date for the recall election, effectively setting an election for recalling Cook, Byrd and Ortega. Byrd and Ortega benefited from Cook’s legal action. We asked John Cook if Byrd or Ortega offered to help him with the legal fees, or if they thanked him for ending the recall efforts against them. Cook wrote that “they didn’t help with the costs and didn’t comment on the final outcome.” A battle for open spaces led to the attempted recall of a mayor.
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The Recall of Dee Margo
A controversy over open spaces led Zachary Gonzalez to file a notice of intent to recall Dee Margo on August 9, 2011. Zachary, who amended his letter of intent the following day, cited the issue of the Lost Dog Trailhead as the reason for the recall of Margo. Public records do not show that Gonzalez turned in signatures to city officials. The next recall attempt lasted less than a day.
The Recall of Larry Romero
In 2015, a former opponent, Adam Gurrola, who lost to then-city representative Larry Romero in 2013 filed paperwork seeking to recall Romero with the city clerk’s office. One of the “controversial” votes by Romero that led Gurrola to seek his recall was “spearheading the city manager’s recent $61,000 pay raise,” and “skirting the process to get streets paved in his [Romero’s] district.”
The following day, Gurrola filed paperwork ending his recall of Romero. Gurrola has refused to discuss why he had a change of heart, leaving supporters unhappy with his sudden dismissal of the recall attempt. The next recall involved a second controversial downtown sports arena.
The Recall of Cortney Niland
On December 15, 2016, Michael Patiño filed his intention to begin collecting signatures to recall Cortney Niland. Patiño wrote in the letter of intent to recall her that “we have no confidence” in Niland. Central to Niland’s recall was the controversial downtown arena that targeted the Duranguito neighborhood. A few months later, Patiño canceled the signature collection effort citing that Niland had agreed to listen to her constituents.
After being largely absent for months from her city office, Niland resigned on April 4, 2017, citing family obligations.
All the recall attempts of city council representatives have failed in El Paso. Some because the organizers abandoned the efforts, and others because officials litigated the signatures verified by officials, or simply rejected them. Criminal charges against organizers of the recalls have been threatened in two successful recall petition signature drives. Cook, in his email to us offered the following advice to the organizers of the recall petition drive against Cassandra Hernandez: “My advice to the organizers of the petition drive is that they need to pay attention to detail and follow the law.”
Although El Paso voters have been unsuccessful in recalling their city representatives, one effort in neighboring Socorro succeeded.
The Successful Recall – Willie Gandara
Although recall efforts in El Paso have failed each time, Socorro voters mounted a successful recall effort in 2011 against Willie Gandara Sr. Gandara was among several officials who were convicted on corruption charges in 2010. Gandara’s son, Willie Gandara, Jr., then a county commissioner was arrested at Sierra Blanca on February 22, 2012 at the Sierra Blanca Border Patrol Checkpoint. Federal agents, who were waiting for Gandara to arrive, arrested him on marihuana smuggling charges.
Gandara, Jr. pleaded guilty on August 17, 2012 to drug smuggling and on November 14, 2012 was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in federal prison.
Larry Medina sued the author and his business in 2001 over the recall effort led by Jaime O. Perez. Medina alleged that the author’s company violated Texas election law by providing technical services to the recall effort. The author’s company provided website services to Citizens For Good Government as part of a long-standing partnership between Perez and the author related to developing an internet network including an online newspaper. El Paso Sheriff’s investigators and the El Paso Police Department Public Integrity Unit investigated Perez and the author after an El Paso Times report alleged criminal activity. No criminal charges were filed.