It took the threat of a lawsuit alleging violations of the Texas Education Code and the Texas Elections Code before Beaumont Independent School District would move forward with properly drawing names for ballot placement after several BISD Board of Trustees candidates claimed the original draw – done at the office of the district’s legal counsel Tanner Hunt and Melody Chappell – was invalid and improper.
According to several candidates challenging incumbents for spots on the board, when the drawing for ballot placement was held Tuesday, March 22, the candidates never saw their names written on the slips of paper that were placed in Styrofoam cups for the drawing by an employee of the law firm. Nor did any of the candidates have the opportunity to verify whose name was drawn from the cup. The law firm’s employee simply called out the name of the candidate to appear first on the ballot, which coincidentally was the incumbent in three out of the five races. The other two races, District 2 and District 5, did not have an incumbent seeking reelection, but former BISD trustee Zenobia Bush got the top spot on the ballot in District 2.
“They needed to do the right thing,” District 1 challenger Donna Forgas told The Examiner. “That is all that needs to be done.”
Forgas explained that she was told to go to the law office of Wells, Peyton, Greenberg and Hunt, which represents the district, for the ballot drawing. She said she arrived “a little before 10 a.m.” and that the candidates were directed to a conference room. She said at 10 a.m. Tanner Hunt, one of the lawyers for BISD, entered the room and said he was waiting for documentation from Lafayette Spivey Jr., who was withdrawing from the election. Forgas said that about 15 to 20 minutes later, a woman came in and spoke with Hunt, who later said that Spivey was on the telephone.
“She said she had Mr. Spivey on the telephone and would put it on the speakerphone for us to listen to,” Forgas said. “But he didn’t put it on speakerphone; he was on the phone and he said, ‘So, you are dropping out, Mr. Spivey, you are going to withdraw. Make sure that you get the paper notarized and you send it to us.’ We couldn’t hear what was being said on the other end, so we don’t really know who he was talking to.”
Forgas said after Hunt ended the call, a female associate of the law firm came in the room with five Styrofoam cups stacked on top of one another. She said the associate set the cups down and proceeded to draw pieces of paper from each one but did not show the paper to the candidates.
“She had a notepad and said she was going to draw from the cup for District 1 first. So, she reached into the cup pulled a piece of paper out and said Terry Williams would have place one,” Forgas said. “She then folded it up and set it in front of the cup and pulled another piece of paper out of the cup and said it was mine. She never showed it to anyone. She then went to the cup for District 2 and followed the same procedure and said that Zenobia Bush was in place one on the ballot. She then pulled a piece of paper out of the District 3 cup and so on. Each time she did it I could tell that the piece of paper she was pulling out first was larger than the one she pulled out second and we could never see any names on the paper. I was 2 feet away and I couldn’t see any writing.”
Forgas said that when the woman got to the fifth cup for District 5 she only pulled two names – Mike Neil was first and Kellie Fowler was second. Spivey’s name was not pulled despite the fact that he had not officially withdrawn from the race in accordance with Texas law.
“We never got to look at anything,” Forgas said. “No one did. It could have all been legit, but it sure gave the appearance that something was going on.”
Mike Neil, who is running against Fowler and Spivey, said the fix was in from the moment they walked into the room.
“My main thought was that it was a setup as far as Spivey was concerned,” Neil said. “I think he was talked into withdrawing from the race because the opposition thinks he will split the vote. But what is very disappointing is that all of this happened in an attorney’s office, and he should know the law. Even more disturbing is that Woodrow Reece sat there and let it happen.
“They did whatever they wanted to do despite what the law was. I think we were all dumbfounded that it was happening so blatantly in front of us. They know they did it the wrong way. There is no doubt in my mind. Lord knows that Tanner Hunt knows how it should be done. It was a total farce.”
According to the Texas Election Code Section 52.094(a) and (b), “Except as otherwise provided by law, for an election at which the names of more than one candidate for the same office are to appear on the ballot in an independent column or are to appear on a general or special election ballot that does not contain a party nominee, the order of the candidates’ names shall be determined by a drawing.
“The authority responsible for having the official ballot prepared for the election shall conduct the drawing.”
Additionally, the Texas Education Code Section 11.058 (g) states, “The board of trustees shall arrange by lot the names of the candidates for each position.”
In BISD’s case, there had never been any board action to cast lots, arrange lots or draw names for placement on the ballot; therefore, Forgas and Neil sought legal help.
In fact, Neil said he was able to find out that Chappell certified the actual ballot even though the process was done incorrectly and Spivey’s name was not included.“I called the city clerk on Monday and spoke with her, and she agreed that he had to properly withdraw in order to have his name removed from the ballot, and that did not happen,” Neil said. “She had already sent off the ballots to have them printed.”
When asked about the matter, Beaumont City Clerk Tina Broussard confirmed to The Examiner that Chappell had certified the ballot and that she called Chappell about her concerns when she was made aware of the situation.
“She (Chappell) proofed the layout of the ballot,” Broussard said. “She signed off and said it was correct. I found out about an hour later, after she certified it, that Mr. Spivey had not legally withdrawn his name with his signature being notarized that he was withdrawing from the race.”
Broussard said she then alerted the city’s election vendor ES&S (Election Systems & Software) and had them cease printing the ballots.
“I found out his name should still be on the ballot,” she said. “So, I sent an e-mail to our vendor and asked (them) not to go forward until I found out what was going on. I have been waiting ever since.”
On Tuesday, March 29, BISD sent out a notice that ballot placement for District 5 would be redrawn Thursday, March 31, in Superintendent Carrol Thomas’ office. A short time later, a new notice was sent out by the district that ballot placement in District 5 would be drawn Friday, April 1, at 10 a.m.
The district had still not addressed the issue of a lack of formal action by the board of trustees, nor had it made proper notice for a trustee meeting to take place in order for ballot placement to occur.
That’s when attorney David Van de Cordova, calling BISD’s actions “multifaceted illegalities,” filed a demand letter calling for Texas law to be followed in the drawing of names for ballot placement.
It wasn’t until after that letter was sent that BISD sent out another notice, this time setting a special meeting of the BISD trustees at 3:30 p.m. April 1 and calling for action to be taken to amend the election order and move forward with ballot placement procedures at 3:45 p.m.
Broussard said the delay has her bumping up against a deadline to get the information to ES&S so the ballot can be printed in time for the election and early voting.“We are waiting on BISD,” she said.
Both Neil and Forgas laughed when it was pointed out that BISD’s ballot brouhaha would be resolved on April Fool’s Day.
“It couldn’t have been any better than that,” Forgas said. “Kind of fitting – it is BISD.”
Late Wednesday, Spivey contacted The Examiner and explained his health was in poor shape and he was trying to withdraw but had missed the deadline. His name will still be on the ballot.
BISD Spokesperson Jessie Haynes sent a request for comment to Chappell. It was not answered by press time.