SAN ANGELO — City Council members accepted a certified petition Tuesday signed by more than a thousand residents who want to outlaw abortion in San Angelo, effectively declaring the city to be a "sanctuary for the unborn."
While anti-abortion supporters have urged officials for a public vote no later than May, it could take until November before the proposed ordinance appears on the ballot.
Last week, Julia Antilley with the City Clerk's office determined a sufficient number — at least 1,512 people — had signed their names to a petition wanting an ordinance banning abortion in San Angelo. On Tuesday, Feb. 1, she brought the petition to City Council members and addressed what steps were required in proposing a new ordinance for adoption.
"We're ready to move on with the following steps that have to be done per (city) charter to get this on to a ballot," Antilley said.
Prior to a vote, Antilley told council members they would need to publish the 17-page draft ordinance in the Standard-Times — both in English and in Spanish. She recommended giving residents at least one week to read and consider the draft ordinance before scheduling a public hearing.
"At that public hearing, (council members) can decide to accept the ordinance as proposed, make changes to the ordinance, or reject the ordinance," Antilley said.
Should the City reject the proposed ordinance, members of the initiating committee who submitted it will have 20 days to issue a certified statement requesting the ordinance be placed on the ballot, either in its original or amended form.
Antilley suggested City Council hold a public hearing for the ordinance during its regularly scheduled meeting on March 1. A motion for doing so was made by Councilperson Larry Miller, Single Member District 6, and then seconded by Harry Thomas, (SMD 3).
San Angelo Mayor Brenda Gunter asked if anyone among the roughly two dozen people attending Tuesday's meeting had public comments to offer before council members voted.
Several members of the audience stepped forward. For Ryan Buck, a March public hearing wasn't soon enough.
Speaking on behalf of other anti-abortion supporters gathered in the audience, the senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, 90 E. 14th Street, asked council members to shorten the timeline proposed by Antilley by as much as two weeks.
"Our hope is that we would not go forward with a March deadline for the public hearing and that we could move that up so we can make the May ballot," Buck said, who worried the ordinance wouldn't appear before voters until November.
"We'll go as far as we have to," Buck said, adding that anti-abortion activists would be "loud and clear" in their support for the draft ordinance, whether it took four months or longer to enact.
Following Buck to the podium was Mark Lee Dickson, Director of Right to Life of East Texas, who not only requested a public hearing be scheduled on Feb. 15, but implied the City was running afoul of state law.
"According to the laws of the State of Texas, before you vote on something that's on an agenda, you have to hear public comments," said Dickson, who told officials its decision to consider a March 1 date was "invalid."
Dickson, who founded the Sanctuary City for the Unborn initiative, was named in a recent lawsuit against Texas' controversial Heartbeat Act, which bans abortions after six weeks and deputizes private citizens to sue those who aid or provide such abortions.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the law to remain in place for now while it moves through other courts. The justices agreed, however, to dismiss challenges against Dickson himself — the sole individual named in one of the suits — according to the Texas Tribune.
He, like Buck, urged council members to get the issue before San Angelo voters sooner rather than later.
"If this is put on the November ballot, you're looking at a lot more time of this being at the forefront," Dickson said.
After Dickson stepped away from the podium, Gunter asked City Attorney Theresa James to weigh in on implications officials were "illegally discussing the item."
James pointed out that no such vote had taken place — a motion on the item had been made, and that public comments, including ones offered by Dickson, were part of that discussion before council members voted.
At least five other members of the audience spoke to city officials, echoing Buck and Dickson's request to put the ordinance on the May ballot. While there are currently no abortion clinics in San Angelo as of Tuesday, Feb. 1, one speaker told officials "lives will be lost" due to abortions if the City failed to act quickly.
"This is not a matter that can be shelved for the matter of convenience to be put not on the May ballot, but the November ballot," said John Bariou. "I will encourage you to act with the haste warranted in this situation."
After about 15 minutes of discussion, council members voted (4-1) in favor of holding a public hearing on March 1, setting up the ordinance to appear on the November ballot. Lucy Gonzales (SMD 4) voted against the motion. Tom Thompson (SMD 2), was not present.
Buck expressed disappointment in the decision, but vowed to fight on.
"We feel there was ample time to get measure prepared for the May ballot," Buck said during an interview with the Standard-Times. "We're going to move forward. It'll stay as a hot-button issue through the November midterm election. ... More than 2,000 citizens are disappointed today, but we'll go forward."
A copy of the ordinance proposing to outlaw abortion in San Angelo will appear in a later print edition of the Standard-Times.
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John Tufts covers enterprise and investigative topics in West Texas. Send him a news tip at JTufts@Gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on San Angelo Standard-Times: San Angelo City Council chooses March 1 public hearing on abortion ban