A judge has ruled in favor of the Calallen Independent School District after a resident filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a recent bond election.
The lawsuit was filed in the 214th District Court by Calallen resident Karen Ford. It was originally filed in December before Ford had hired an attorney, Bruce Matzke, who submitted an amended petition Jan. 16.
The amendment claimed a public notice about the election, published in the Oct. 18 issue of the Nueces County Record Star, did not include all nine of the Calallen ISD's voting precincts. Missing was Precinct 110, which currently has more than 1,400 registered voters, which is about the same as in November during the bond election. Also absent was the polling location for that precinct, the Hilltop Community Center.
"Their failure to publish that (information) does not allow them to even conduct an election," Matzke said in court last week.
Superintendent Arturo Almendarez was the first witness called by Matzke during last week's two-day trial to testify that Precinct 110 was within the school district's boundaries and to verify the notice that was approved for publication.
Almendarez said the notice shown by Matzke was the one sent to the Record Star to be published, but added there was nothing intentional about the omission of Precinct 110.
"The absence of (Precinct) 110 is just an inadvertent mistake that was made," Almendarez said.
The defense argued that there was not enough evidence to show that even if turnout had included all of Precinct 110, it would have caused the proposition to fail.
"The level of turnout would not have been significant enough to overturn this," said defense attorney John Holmgreen.
Statistics for the November elections given by the defense showed that voter turnout for Precinct 110 had remained consistent over the past three years. About 8 percent of the precinct's registered voters cast their ballots in the school district's bond election, despite Matzke's claim of the precinct's residents having no notice of the election.
Furthermore, the defense argued that voters seemed to be more interested in the two propositions that affected the school district. One was the $43 million bond proposal and the other, Proposition 2, was to authorize the school district to refinance about $450,000 of existing debt that was incurred in 2002.
"It appears that more people voted for these two issues than any other," Almandarez said.
About 1,500 of the school district's 15,658 registered voters cast their ballots for each of the two propositions, both of which passed with about a two-to-one ratio for and against, respectively, Holmgreen said.
A joint election notice was even published by the county clerk's office in the Oct. 13 issue of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that listed the Hilltop Community Center as a polling location for Precinct 110, Holmgreen said. That location has been the same since 1998, he added.
However, Calallen resident Anne Shaw testified that she had gathered a petition with about 200 signatures from residents who claimed they would have voted against the bond election if they had been made aware of it.
"I voted against it," Shaw said. "I feel sorry for people being taken advantage of. I have a conscience."
The defense objected to the petition, citing it as hearsay and inadmissible since there was no way to verify the signatures were authentic.
Matzke tried to propose different arguments after Shaw's testimony, even reverting back to Ford's original claim of the tax rate not being included in the notice. The defense objected that Matzke's argument was irrelevant to the proceedings, which the judge agreed with.
"I have heard no evidence that anyone was denied the right to vote," visiting Judge Joaquin Villarreal, who presided over the hearing, said, adding that the school district seemed to be in "substantial compliance."
Matzke argued that because the school district left out Precinct 110 and its polling location, state law was not followed, rendering the election void.
"The right to vote is something that is given to us by the Texas Constitution," Matzke said.
After a full day of testimony from both sides Jan. 31, Villarreal recessed the hearing until the next day. But when Matzke began his arguments Friday with cases the judge was unfamiliar with and seemed to have no bearing on the case, Villarreal appeared to run out of patience.
"If we're going to overturn an election, that's going to cost a lot of money," Villarreal said. "Show me the case law that says if you miss one precinct or one sentence, you have to start all over."
After about two hours of arguments from both sides, Villarreal abruptly halted the proceedings to give his ruling.
"I don't think there was anything improper with the way things were done," the judge said. "If there had been no notice at all, that would be a big difference for me. Here, people went to vote anyway."
After the trial, Ford said she didn't want people to think she had a vendetta against the school district or its students. It was simply a matter of not following the law.
"I'm all for education," Ford said. "But I didn't know about (the bond election) and that's why I'm against it."
Her attorney agreed.
"This was not about the bond issue," Matzke said. "It was about the requirements that needed to be followed."
For Almendarez, though, it was an unfortunate situation for the school district, and more importantly, its students to be caught up in.
"It's a bittersweet victory in that it was very costly to defend ourselves," the superintendent said. "But there was never any intent to not have anyone vote in the bond election."
School officials said as of Dec. 31, the school district had received a bill of $12,000 in attorney's fees for the case. The school board still has to approve all payments for legal fees.
But Almendarez said the school district can now move forward with trying to issue the bonds for the various projects voters approved, which had been delayed because of the lawsuit.
If an appeal is filed by Ford, however, the issuance will once again be put on hold.
Matzke said Friday his client was still unsure whether or not she would appeal the ruling.