Port Arthur charter change talk focuses on eliminating runoff requirement

Published 12:13 am Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Port Arthur councilmembers on Friday will consider changes to the city charter that would allow officials to be elected by plurality vote instead of the current majority vote and change the term limits to three two-year spans.

The council will meet in an open session at 11:30 a.m. Friday in city hall.

Former Councilman Willie “Bae” Lewis Jr., who is running for the District 1 seat, is part of a committee that is submitting the proposal. The committee is seeking to eliminate the present requirement under the charter for runoffs in the event that the leading candidate for a position does not garner at least 50 percent of the vote. In a plurality vote, the top vote getter would win the election without necessarily reaching 50 percent of the turnout.

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Thurman Bartie unseated Derrick Freeman as mayor in a 2019 runoff.

Lewis is running against Ingrid West Holmes and Mike Mason for the seat currently held by Raymond Scott Jr., who is term-limited but has filed to run for Position 8. Scott has three opponents: Tierrany DeCuir, Rosendo Ochoa Jr. and the Rev. Donald Ray Frank.

Lewis would like to see a plurality vote take effect to give Hispanics or Latinos who run for public office a better chance to succeed. According to the July 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.2 percent of Port Arthurans are black and 33 percent are Hispanic or Latino, but the entire city council is black.

Lewis believes the percentage of blacks in Port Arthur is higher.

“All decisions are made by an ethnic group that’s only 45 percent of the population,” he said. “That is unfair. Hispanics make up about 30 percent of the population, and [a plurality vote] would give people a better chance to win an election.”

Armando Ruiz, the only person to file for the District 2 seat as of Tuesday afternoon, and Ochoa are the only Hispanics or Latinos running for city council.

Another benefit to plurality election, Lewis said, is saving an estimated $80,000 to $100,000 on election costs. Having spent more than 30 years in city government, Lewis said Port Arthur spent $250,000 on majority vote elections between 1983 and 2008.

“That’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

The charter change committee doesn’t seek any changes to the four city council districts, Lewis said. One chair representing each district, two at-large positions and the mayor make up the city council.

Lewis last served on the council in 2018, when districts 5 (which he served) and 6 were dropped and his most recent term expired. He said in an April 10, 2018, article of The News that what was District 6 included 26,420 Hispanics or Latinos.

Scott was asked before Tuesday’s city council meeting about considering the charter change, but declined to offer his specific feelings.

“That has to be determined with the full council,” he said. “I have no prevailing thoughts until it’s presented to the full council. That’s how I do business.”

District 4 councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Harold Doucet said none of the councilmembers received any documents on the proposal.

“Once they bring us propositions, then we’ll discuss them,” Doucet said.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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