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City Council places Justice Charter on May municipal ballot, fulfilling state legal obligation

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez speaking in front of City Hall in support of the Justice Charter. He's holding a mic and standing in front of boxes of signed petitions, and behind him are supporters wearing Justice Charter and Party for Socialism and Liberation shirts and holding signs supporting the Justice Charter.
Josh Peck
District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez speaking in support of the San Antonio Justice Charter in front of City Hall in January.

The San Antonio City Council voted to place the San Antonio Justice Charter on the May 6 municipal ballot on Thursday, fulfilling a state legal obligation following the city clerk’s verification of over 20,000 signatures in favor of the petition.

District 8, 9, and 10 Councilmembers Manny Pelaez, John Courage, and Clayton Perry all stood and walked out of the council chambers just prior to the vote, abstaining.

“I’m not going to be participating in a vote that I think is going to mislead the public and arguably create a situation that is unconstitutional and unenforceable for our city attorney,” Pelaez said, despite the fact that approving the charter amendment for the May ballot was required by state law.

The Justice Charter would seek to decriminalize abortion and low-level marijuana possession, codify cite-and-release, ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds by police, and establish a Justice Director position to oversee local criminal justice policy.

Pelaez added that he thinks the Justice Charter should be broken up, agreeing with one of the goals of a lawsuit pending at the Texas Supreme Court brought by anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Freedom, which is also trying to get the ballot initiative removed entirely. The Texas Alliance for Freedom’s reasoning is based on the opinion that the Justice Charter represents multiple subjects, which is against state law.

“I think it should be broken up, but that’s up to the [Texas] Supreme Court, not me,” he said.

The city and the organizers supporting the Justice Charter have separately filed responses to the lawsuit with the state supreme court, saying that the Texas Alliance for Freedom petition was wrongfully filed with the Texas Supreme Court, and needed to be first filed with a lower appeals court.

The city’s argument went further, arguing that even if the petition had been filed properly, it still failed on the substance; the city argued that because the state single-subject rule for charter amendments has been read broadly in the past, it was “reasonable” that the Justice Charter was understood to fall under the single subject of public safety.

During a lengthy public comment period, City Attorney Andy Segovia repeatedly addressed the fact that the vote on Thursday from council was not about whether they approve or disapprove of the charter amendment, but simply a ministerial process that they must approve. The charter amendment will be up to the voters to decide in May, barring possible state court intervention.

San Antonio Police Officer's Assocation President Danny Diaz (left) stands with Alonzo Hardin, president of the San Antonio Black Police Officers Coalition during a press conference outside the union headquarters in Northeast San Antonio
Joey Palacios
San Antonio Police Officer's Assocation President Danny Diaz (left) stands with Alonzo Hardin, president of the San Antonio Black Police Officers Coalition during a press conference outside the union headquarters in Northeast San Antonio

Dozens of opponents and supporters of the charter signed up to speak before the vote, including the president of the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association Danny Diaz, who has been outspoken about his opposition to the charter amendment, and ACT4SA executive director Ananda Tomas, whose organization has led the push for the effort.

Diaz said the charter amendment would make San Antonio more dangerous and prone to theft and fentanyl use through the expansion of cite and release to include misdemeanor theft under $750 and the portion of the Justice Charter that would end arrests and citations for low-level marijuana possession.

The Justice Charter would not decriminalize theft if enforced, but it would give citations to those accused of theft under $750 rather than arresting them.

Tomas argued it was critical not only that the Justice Charter be put on the ballot, but that city council edit the language that will be presented on the ballot to be more clear to voters and more easily translated into other languages. The city attorney’s office said that there is no legal way to change the language that will be presented on the ballot.

Segovia has also said that only one major element of the Justice Charter, the one establishing a Justice Director, would be enforced by the city if voters passed the charter amendment, because the rest violate state law. Organizers dispute that, pointing to enforcement of similar policies around marijuana decriminalization and cite and release in other Texas cities.

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