November 1, 2023 630 PM
BREWSTER COUNTY — An election to finalize the creation of a Lajitas Utility District within 2,700 undeveloped acres of the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, previously thought to be open to all registered voters in voting Precinct 7, has been discovered by officials amidst early voting to only be open to one individual.
Lora Nussbaum, elections administrator for Brewster County, said the error was due to a miscommunication between her and the utility district’s attorney, Ronald Freeman, whose office was responsible for placing the initiative on the ballot.
Freeman told The Big Bend Sentinel that he failed to explain to Nussbaum that only voters living specifically within the district’s boundaries — as opposed to all voters in the precinct — are eligible to vote in the confirmation election. “This was my mistake,” said Freeman. “I take responsibility. I should have communicated more clearly with the elections administrator.”
The confirmation of the utility district, which was first created by an act of the Legislature in 2011, is required by state law to be put up for a public vote. Freeman said the district, while not pursuing any specific projects at this time, is seeking to become active.
“We haven’t used it yet, it’s gonna be born after this confirmation election,” said Freeman.
If approved by the one eligible voter, the district will have the power to levy taxes, issue bonds, and more. Utility districts are typically created by developers for infrastructure projects and have broad powers to “implement water, sewer, and other utilities [and] construct road and drainage improvements,” according to Freeman.
Municipal utility districts, or MUDs, are common throughout the state, with nearly 2,000 active districts, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but less common in the tri-county area due to a lack of large-scale developments. Nussbaum said it was her first time encountering a utility district election.
The utility district election also involves the singular voter selecting any number of five “permanent” district directors. Names on the ballot include George Kutch, Renee Lorenz, Brent Ratliff and H.C. Ross Jr., and Morgan Jones, most of which have been serving informally since the creation of the district in 2011. Many are affiliated with Energy Transfer, a company co-founded by Lajitas Golf Resort owner billionaire Kelcy Warren.
Freeman said the one individual who is eligible to vote has been contacted by the district about the initiative. “We actually have a fella residing in the district who I hope will vote, we’ve asked him to, explained the vote to him and what he’s doing, but other people cannot vote,” said Freeman.
Nussbaum was unable to share the name of the one eligible Lajitas Utility District voter because they have not yet cast a ballot.
Nussbaum said she previously provided a copy of the Precinct 7 voter rolls to Freeman, which show a total of 180 voters living in the precinct, both in Lajitas and Terlingua, and wasn’t sure why the issue hadn’t been raised before early voting began. Now, she said, election officials were scrambling to rectify the situation.
“We’re having to reprogram the machines so that one eligible voter is able to vote, both the constitutional amendment and the Lajitas district [election], and then the other 179 are eligible to vote only the constitutional amendments,” said Nussbaum.
Printed ballots for the election had already been ordered, said Nussbaum, and can no longer be used. Freeman said the district would compensate the county for the incorrect ballots.
Nussbaum said only one Precinct 7 voter participated in early voting before the Lajitas Utility District election error was discovered. She was unable to confirm whether or not that individual — who is not the one individual permitted to vote on the utility district and directors — voted on those measures.
Freeman said the canvassing process after the election should allow district leaders to weed out invalid votes, and they would work with the Attorney General’s Office as needed to correct the situation.
“The board has the power when it canvasses those results to say that vote’s not going to be counted because we know that vote was in Precinct 7 and not district boundaries,” said Freeman.
If the one eligible voter decides not to participate in the election or votes against the measure, the district will have to decide whether or not to hold another election, if possible, or will dissolve, said Freeman.
For more information, see the article titled “Lajitas Golf Resort brings forth ballot initiative to finalize utility district establishment,” published last week in print and online at bigbendsentinel.com