Woodlands tweaks township election policies to avoid repeat of 2018
The Woodlands Township has unofficially approved minor changes to the township’s election application and candidate notification process, moves that come more than eight months after a candidate was controversially removed from the 2018 township election ballot for not filling in two boxes asking for length of residency in Texas and The Woodlands.
The changes were presented to the six board members present on Thursday, May 16, with Director John McMullan — who had asked for the issue to be clarified in late 2018 — not at the meeting. Because the policy tweaks are not related to the board of directors, there was no vote on them.
Karen Dempsey, an assistant to township President and General Manager Don Norrell, told the board members that the policies were reviewed by township legal staff and advisors and do not supercede state election law, but rather set in place protections at the township level in the event a candidate does not properly fill out an application form.
“There are a number of areas where we have unwritten policies. On the election procedures, this was adopted by the board in 2013 however it has essentially been in place since 2010,” Dempsey said. “This provides guidance on things not specific in state law. State law of course prevails. We had a discussion on election related policies and process since that time, staff has been working with legal counsel on developing internal procedures that are basically a step-by-step guide for staff to follow throughout the election process.”
The five-page document approved on Thursday, May 16, includes provisions aimed to prevent what happened to candidate Luis Granados from happening again. Granados, a local oil and gas engineer, had submitted a candidate application in August 2018 intending to challenge incumbent John Anthony Brown on the township board of directors. However, Granados did not fill in two areas of the application asking for the candidate’s length of residency in both Texas as well as The Woodlands. Both boxes are mandatory and cannot be left blank according to state election law.
After a review by township officials, with assistance from the Texas Department of State, Granados’ application was deemed incomplete and state officials ordered the township to reject it and remove him from the ballot. However, by the time Granados became aware that his application was declined, it was too late for him to file a new form and challenge Brown.
After Granados removal from the ballot, Brown ran for his second term uncontested and won re-election with 100 percent of the votes cast. Granados appealed the rejection of his candidate application and removal from the ballot to the Texas Department of State, but his appeal was rejected in late October.
Granados, who is a more than 30-year resident of The Woodlands, said he was aware that he left the two boxes on the application form blank, but he claims that he asked a township employee about whether he needed to fill them in or not and claimed she accepted the application despite it being incomplete. At the time of his appeal, township officials denied his version of events and also noted that township staff is prohibited by state law to give advice to applicants in local elections.
“In addition to what it included in this draft, we typically offer added value services, we offer notary services — when the township receives a candidate application, the notary is attesting to the signature, not the validity of the application,” Dempsey said. “Once the ballot drawing is conducted, an official list of (candidate names) is published. This (policy paper) is primarily for your information at this time.”
The new provisions are not mandatory board policies, but rather staff guidelines and recommended practices, and include the designation of two township staff members tasked with receiving and reviewing all candidate applications; provide yearly extensive election protocol training for any staff members who may be involved in accepting or processing election candidate applications; and an immediate review of candidate applications by appropriate staff when they are submitted.
Township President and General Manager Don Norrell stressed that the staff guidelines do not supercede state law.
“The baseline of everything is state law, then we have a couple of things that are above and beyond that in terms of reviewing and notary services,” Norrell said.
Current state law requires all applications to be reviewed by township staff within a five calendar day window. The guidelines approved by the township board instruct staff to immediately notify the applicant that their application is being rejected as soon as that determination is made. Additionally, an online list of candidates for office will now be “unofficial” to avoid any confusion.