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2014-11-13

Complaints & contested election - stay tuned!

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Pictured: Losing mayoral candidate Brian Black was interviewed by WOAI's Emily Baucum about his plans to contest the Tuesday, Nov. 4, election.

As the Bandera County Courier predicted in its Nov. 6 edition, the City of Bandera election might be over, but it is far from finished. First, will come a vote recount, followed inevitably by a contested election in district court.
According to the Texas Election Code, in a contested election, the court has authority to:
• Declare an election void if illegal votes are greater than or equal to the number of votes necessary to change the outcome or cannot ascertain the true outcome of the election
• Order a new election if unable to ascertain true outcome
• Subtract illegal votes if able to determine the side for which an illegal vote was cast
Unsettled by what they consider problematic voting in the city, mayoral candidate Brian Black and his campaign manager, Jodie McNiel, have requested a vote recount. Regardless of the conclusion of the recount, they also plan to contest the results of the election. "You have to contest the election for an investigation to be opened," McNiel explained. The recount is tentatively slated for 10 am, Friday, Nov. 14, at the office of the election administrator.
Multiple
complaints filed
Multiple complaints have also been filed with the 198th District Attorney Scott Monroe as well as with the Offices of the Texas Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Texas Ethics Commission. Black, a popular Bandera businessman and entertainer, received 111 votes, coming in second to Mayor Pro Tem John Hegemier's 117 votes.
"I knew the final vote would be close," Black said in an interview on Thursday, Nov. 6, "but I thought I was running against Maggie. I was completely surprised that John got that many votes. I was sure it would have been the other way around." A former councilman, Maggie Schumacher garnered only 32 votes.
After receiving a tip about allegations of voter fraud in the city election, Emily Baucum, a news reporter from WOIA in San Antonio, and news photographer Josh Saunders interviewed Black at his honkytonk on Main Street, The Longhorn Saloon. The segment is available online.
A Bandera resident for seven years, Black decided to run for mayor with an eye to increasing tourism. "The growth of the town is at stake," he said. "And that depends on tourism. If we don't increase tourism, this city won't exist anymore."
Not a 'sore loser'
Citing a Courier article on Oct. 23 that outlined a series of possible voting violations, Black noted at lease 75 examples of improprieties that he feels warrant further investigation. He also alluded to city ballots possibly being issued to county voters during recent early voting.
"I don't like to lose and I'm not a sore loser, but as far as I'm concerned this election should have been conducted fairly and done right. That's all I'm saying," Black said.
As it turned out, Black was the only mayoral candidate who had signed a Code of Fair Campaign Practices pledge. This pledge contains "basic principles of decency, honesty and fair play that every candidate and political committee in this state has a moral obligation to observe and uphold in order that, after vigorously contested but fairly conducted campaigns, our citizens my exercise their constitutional rights to a free and untrammeled choice and the will of the people may be fully and clearly expressed." Black filed the pledge with the city on August 20.
According to McNiel, problems began after she asked permission to speak with eligible city voters at the Bandera Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center on FM 1077. "I had previously identified four patients as living in the city, but when I was scheduled to talk with them, I was told council members had already distributed mail-in ballots to the people," McNiel. "As I understand it, mail-in ballots are not supposed to be hand-delivered to potential voters. I found that very strange." When queried, Hegemier denied visiting the rehabilitation center.
McNiel advised administrators with the healthcare facility that their patients "might have been taken advantage of." She also recommended that they conduct an internal investigation into the conduct of the city council members.
Accosted in
Hegemier's office
Adding fuel to a fire that was already simmering, on Oct. 30, McNiel was accosted by perennial poll worker, Rilla Stevens, at the Bandera County Library, where Hegemier works as library director. After "viciously and verbally attacking" both McNiel and Black, Stevens purportedly told McNiel "she was going to do all the campaigning she could to see to it John Hegemier was elected mayor." McNiel also accused Stevens of making disparaging remarks about Hispanics. Interestingly, the verbal abuse took place behind closed doors in Hegemier's office.
Later, Stevens' vehicle was ostensibly observed in the parking lot of the courthouse annex polling place sporting a campaign sign for Hegemier, in defiance of the "no campaigning within 100 feet of a voting place rule."
The next day, McNiel filed a formal complaint with Bandera County Election Administrator Toba Perez-Wright requesting that Stevens be removed from her position because "she does not respect the democratic process and should not be allowed to work in the elections office or polling. I feel certain she is using this position to obtain votes for her friend, John Hegemier." McNiel also asked that Stevens never again be allowed to "poison voters with her [biased] threatening tactics."
Noting that "numerous other complaints" had been lodged against Stevens, Perez-Wright immediately dismissed her as a poll worker. When Stevens reported for duty on Election Day, she was told she would not be working.
Earlier, Perez-Wright had failed to address a similar complaint filed by Schumacher and instead allowed Stevens to work through early voting.
According to Schumacher, Perez-Wright indicated that Stevens had met "all the criteria" to work the polling place.
Office of Secretary of State
On Thursday, Nov. 6, McNiel filed an election complaint against Stevens with the Office of the Texas Secretary of State. Her charges against Stevens include:
• Conducting herself inappropriately as a poll worker
• Openly campaigning for a candidate while working at the poll during election
• Abusing power and control
• Being a [biased] poll worker
• Working front lines of election for her own interests
• Threatening and attempting to influence voters to vote for "her" candidate
• Misusing public record information
• Indulging in unacceptable verbal attacks on voters-citizens regarding their choice of candidates
• Parking her car on county property on Election Day with campaign material [clearly visible]
Additionally, according to McNiel, Stevens apparently swerved her vehicle onto property where McNiel was campaigning on Election Day, coming within two feet of McNiel. Three witnesses can corroborate the incident. McNiel has filed an incident report with Bandera Marshal Will Dietrich. "If Ms. Stevens continues to harass me and my candidate, I will be forced to take additional action," McNiel said.
"On Election Day, John Hegemier apologized to me about Rilla Stevens' conduct," McNiel said. "He assured me that he had not put her up to that."
Texas Ethics Commission
Hegemier, meanwhile, is currently the subject of a sworn complaint before the Texas Ethics Commission due to his failure to file campaign finance reports as mandated by law. According to McNiel, Hegemier failed to file any required financial reports for either his city council elections or for the recent mayoral race.
As her complaint states: "On 10-29-14, I requested public records copies of John Hegemier For C/OH #A, #B, #E, #F, #G, #H, #I, #K and #T for both his City Council and Mayor Elections. I was told on 10-30-14, after he was 'alerted' that I was requesting this information, he went to City Secretary Karen Chesler and filed. This is unacceptable. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, failing to file a report on time or filing an incomplete report is subject to criminal or civil penalties. I request that John Hegemier be held accountable for his failure to respect the process and ignore every filing date required."
According to McNiel, the records reflect that Hegemier failed to file mandated financial reports on Jan. 15; July 15; by the 30th day before the election report; eighth day before the election report; and a report noting that campaign expenses exceeded $500, if applicable. He also failed to provide a copy for printed campaign material as proof of election expenses.
And the protests don't stop there. Questions have arisen concerning mail-in ballots. "Those ballots were apparently counted after the other votes," McNiel said. "However, the final tally did not reflect any of the mail-in ballots. One of them was from Charlotte Browning's daughter. Who do you suppose she voted for?"
Also troublesome are ballots given to voters in the City of Bandera Precinct 305 and Bandera County 305. "We want to make sure a poll worker didn't give ballots to people who live in the county that enabled them to vote in the city election," McNiel said. "That could easily have been done."
She continued, "I have participated in all kinds of elections - labor union elections and even national ones - and I have never seen anything like what went on in Bandera during this one. What is wrong with this place?"
Politicking in utility bills?
And, last but certainly not least, a complaint will been forwarded to County Attorney Janna Lindig and City Administrator Lamar Schulz regarding a campaign message that outgoing Mayor Don Clark included in city residents' utility bills from 9/21/2014-10/21/2014. The message read: "Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve the people of Bandera. I encourage you to support you [sic] City Government: Increased transparency, proper management of your tax dollars and diligently working to improved the City of Bandera. Mayor Don Clark."
Ironically, it was under Clark's administration that the Texas Rangers investigated reports that city council members had apparently engaged in repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act - a fact to which Hegemier readily admitted when questioned by the Courier.