Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

City of Del Rio

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College
207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

The community now known as Del Rio was founded in the 1860s as a group of families settled along San Felipe Creek and organized an irrigation company capturing the waters of the Creek and converting land on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert into fertile farm and pasture land. The irrigated farmland yielded sugar cane, grapes, citrus as well as grains and vegetables. The Creek and community were a jumping off point for merchants and soldiers traveling west across the Trans-Pecos country of Texas lying astride the San Antonio-El Paso and Chihuahua Roads. Jurisdiction for the area fell to Uvalde County and then Kinney County although direct administration came from either authority.

Del Rio became a small city with the arrival of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (Southern Pacific) Railroad in 1882 and the completion of this second transcontinental railroad line near the mouth of the Pecos River in January 1883. The community became division headquarters, and the increased population prompted a petition to the State Legislature for the formation of Val Verde County. This first local authority was granted in 1885. The second local government was the [Del Rio] Independent School District organized in 1890. An actual city government would not be formed until the twentieth-century.1

The first city government for Del Rio was organized in 1905. As per state law, the County Judge of Val Verde County, J.G. Griner, responded to a 141 name petition of “bona fide citizens and electors of Del Rio” to hold an election to determine whether a city government would be organized. The petition was submitted on May 16, 1905, and the election was held that May 27th. Judge Griner certified that 300 votes were cast with 182 in favor and 117 opposed. (One lone vote was labeled “Scattering.”) The Judge’s order then listed the boundaries and declared the town incorporated.2

Two days later, Judge Griner posted in the county courthouse, the post office, and F.C. Blaine’s Saloon a notice of election “for the purpose of electing a Mayor, a Marshall and five Aldermen” to be held June 21, 1905.

The results were tabulated the next day, towit:
   Total number of votes cast,               172
   For Mayor         James McLymont   172;
   For Marshall      B.A. Borroum         170;
   For Aldermen    J.F. Merritt              171;
                            E.F. Howard           172;
                            D.G. Franks            171;
                            C.A. Jackson          172;
                            Tom Norvell            172.3
It would seem safe to say that these individuals were probably in league with one another both for the incorporation of the town and their election.

The first meeting of the Board of Aldermen occurred June 30. A boundary survey was the first item of business and then the appointment of various city officials. Attorneys John J. Foster and C.K. McDowell were appointed to draft a city code. The new city government leaned heavily on the Val Verde County government. The Precinct 1 Justice-of-the-Peace was appointed City Recorder, and the County Attorney was ordered to prosecute violations of the yet-to-be-written city criminal code. Furthermore, this first meeting, and subsequent meetings, took place in the county courthouse.4

The city charter, for lack of a better term, included the form and style of the government but also civil code and criminal code. A two-thirds vote requirement to assess taxes suggests an intent to limit the ability of the city to levy taxes, but considering the amount of space dedicated to what could be taxed, the code also suggests that taxes were not the same hot button issue they are today. For example, the city taxed real estate as one might expect, but also specifically taxed livestock, carriages, steam engines, organs and pianofortes and all other musical instruments, kitchen furniture, jewelry, billiard tables and supplies, sewing machines and clocks. The code also required each city resident to report all of these things that a person owned. This was not a one-time sales tax on the purchase of such items but a yearly property tax on the possession of such items. The city charged occupation taxes on nearly any job they thought a person might have—attorneys, photographers, bakers, bankers, tailors, dairymen, and even fortune tellers and clairvoyants. The city even taxed events such as theater performances, circuses, cock fights and fights between bulls and bears.5

The criminal code focused on maintaining peace and quiet. Horse racing in the streets was prohibited, as was throwing rocks and using slingshots. Vagrancy, public drunkenness, obstructing a sewer or drainage ditch and swimming nude in San Felipe Creek or in the town’s all-important canals were all expressly prohibited. And of course, merchants were absolutely prohibited from stocking dynamite within the city limits; the city fathers did not want someone to accidentally blow up their town.6

The city fathers then organized committees of aldermen to operate and oversee the various city departments and continued on with city operations.

The next election was held on August 11, 1906 for Mayor and three Aldermen. This election was also certified by Judge Griner as per state law.7 For some unknown reason the mayor and two aldermen quit on July 9th eliminating the ability of the Board of Aldermen to form a quorum. The law in such situations required the County Judge and Commissioners Court to call an election to restore the Board for the City. They accepted a petition of Del Rio citizens and called for the election. The election was held and the positions filled. (J.W. Newton is a particular mystery since he was one of the resigning aldermen, a petition signer and one of the newly elected aldermen.)8

The crisis was averted, but then the Board of Aldermen minutes simply stop October 23, 1906. The minutes resume December 6, 1911 with a different mayor and some different officials but with no explanation for the lack of recording.9 (The county’s election records also leave a period from 1910 to 1915 unrecorded, so the means by which the new officials won office is a mystery.) The County conducted business during the missing time that would normally be conducted by the City: the creation of a health district, street maintenance and the like. The records do not say when or how, but at some time after the 1906 election the City unincorporated. “The Town of Del Rio, in said County, being an unincorporated community” are the words in a contract between a telephone company and the county in 1911 and are the only positive evidence of what happened.10

Those records that exist simply declare election totals for a November 1911 incorporation election were recorded by the county commissioners with 164 votes “For Commission” and 140 “Against Commission.” George McMullen was elected mayor, and J.O. Taylor and G.M. Atkinson were elected Commissioners. No actual vote totals were recorded; they were said to have all been elected with pluralities. The boundaries of the town were also set forth in the order.11

The resumption of records is related to the creation of a new city charter that had been approved November 15, 1911. The record states that the election, once again, was ordered, not by the city’s Mayor or Board of Aldermen, but by C.K. McDowell, the new Val Verde County Judge. This seems to follow Texas law with respect to municipalities, but suggests that the city government had been dismantled: “an incorporation election [may be] called by the county judge on petition of residents of an unincorporated community.”12

This second city charter in many ways was similar to the first. It included a boundary survey of the city limits, extensive taxation, from nine pin and ten pin alleys and baseball parks to auctioneers, surgeons and peddlers. The criminal code reflected the mores of the day. The townspeople apparently did not like cussing or other loud, crude language, but they seem to have misplaced their priorities. Public drunkenness brought a $100 fine; blocking a sidewalk brought a $50 fine. Vagrancy earned a punishment of $200. Beating a dog was fineable by $50, but the beating a person, assault and battery, could only be punished with a fine of $25!13

The new charter also diminished the size of the city council. The governing body included the mayor and only two councilmen called commissioners, and the body was known as the City Commission.14

This government continued for seven years handling the day-to-day business of the small, but growing, metropolitan area of more than 10,000 inhabitants. Sidewalk construction and maintenance were very important, and property owners were ordered to build sidewalks under threat of fines and liens. Del Rio adopted a lengthy dairy ordinance and began installation of electric street lights. The First World War brought night curfews to Del Rio, and the threat of smallpox prompted the city commission to make the medical health inspector a highly paid individual.

During these same years, the Texas State Legislature passed laws allowing cities of sufficient size (10,000 people, but later 5,000) to organize themselves under charters adopted by the inhabitants of the city. The City of Roses took advantage of this law and adopted its third city charter in 1918, its first Home Rule charter.

Both the 1905 and 1911 city governments seem to have been “General Law” cities. General law cities must conform with state law. General law cities, according to a modern standard reference, are responsible for a list of specific matters that shares a great resemblance with the 1905 and 1911 codes of ordinances. They are also limited in the election process that must be followed; state law governs.

The 1918 (and 1967) city governments were “Home Rule” cities. Home rule allows for great flexibility in the election process because the city charter governs. The charter also governs the numbers and functions of city officers. Home rule cities must also have at least 5,000 inhabitants.

The work towards Del Rio’s home rule charter actually began in 1917. A committee of prominent citizens was proposed on July 24th and elected to proceed that October. On March 18, 1918 the proposed charter was presented to the city commission, and it was adopted by the voters of Del Rio on May 10, 1918.15

The new Charter was much longer than previous charters and is much more recognizable as a governing document rather than a collection of ordinances. Most of the criminal code ideas placed in ordinances by the previous charters were condensed into a single section stating that the city government has power to regulate or prohibit certain activities without getting into the specifics of definitions and exact fines.

The major issues addressed in the 1918 Charter are public utilities, civic improvements, and deficit financing. These issues repeatedly merged during the next decades as the City bought water works and distribution systems, installed sanitary sewers and paved streets—and paid for these things with bonds, sometimes not redeemable for twenty-five or thirty years. Another issue that particularly concerned the charter writers was taxi-cabs, or as they called them, hacks, drays and drivers of baggage wagons. Four paragraphs were dedicated to the matter, and for years afterward the City Commission passed ordinances on the matter.

The city’s governing body was called the City Commission as in the previous government. It also included a mayor and two commissioners, all serving two year terms and all being elected at-large. The office requirements reflect the much more strict expectations of the day. The Mayor had to be a U.S. citizen and qualified voter, and he had to be a Del Rio resident for a whole year and a “bona fide owner of real estate in the City for at least two years.” The Commissioners had to be U.S. citizens and qualified voters; they had to meet the one year residency requirement and be an owner of property in the city.

Voters for officer elections had to be at least twenty-one years of age, “entitled to vote for members of the State Legislature,” and six month residents within the city limits. However, people wanting to vote in bond elections also had to be “qualified voters who are property tax payers within the City.”16

The 1918 City Charter was only amended twice—in 1935 and again in 1953.

The 1935 charter revision came about due to confusion about the city’s boundaries. On October 11, 1921, the city commission had deannexed territory that was uninhabited and unplatted and used exclusively for agriculture. Del Rio was by then acknowledged as the Wool and Mohair Capital of the World due to the extensive presence of sheep and goat ranching. Del Rio was and remains surrounding by agricultural land. According to the ordinance, the lands were included within the Del Rio corporate boundaries “by mistake.” The ordinance was passed, and the land taken off the city tax rolls, and the matter seemed to end there.17

The matter returned to the Commission May 8, 1934 in the form of an attorney’s letter explaining that the City Charter did not allow for deannexation of territory. He declared that state law governing cities stated “A municipal Corporation can not disconnect territory which has been legally annexed by an Ordinance purporting to define its boundairies [sic].”18 The city attorney rejected the interpretation. A series of arguments on both sides was presented. The relevant section of the charter “provide[s] for the extension of said limits of said City, and the annexation of additional territory lying adjacent to said City,” but does not specify the power of removal of territory from the said City.19

The issue was resolved the next year. The Commission passed an ordinance on January 23rd calling for an election on two proposals to amend the charter: adopting the deannexed boundary and deletion of 23a—the Board of Manager for the water works. Second and third readings were passed in subsequent meetings, and the matter was put before the people on March 23, 1935. Both measures passed overwhelmingly, and the measures were declared adopted at the April 2nd canvassing. What apparently had been a huge ruckus was settled quite handily, and the issue was put to rest.20

A second attempt to amend the City Charter came about in 1950. The slate of amendment proposals would have expanded the city council to a mayor and five members, each member elected from one of five wards. No at-large seats other than the mayor would be allowed. The proposals were killed, but this presaged a later move to expand and modernize the city government a decade and a half later.21

The second successful charter amendment proposal came about in 1953. Since the 1920s, the Citizens Bridge Company had owned and operated the Del Rio-Villa Acuna International Bridge. In 1953 the Company announced that it was going to put the Bridge up for sale. The City Charter carried no provisions for operating such an enterprise; nevertheless, city ownership of the Bridge and the authority to charge tolls was considered to be beneficial for the city’s future. The election ordinance was quite lengthy, but on October 9, 1953 the voters approved the necessary amendments 711-85 and 712-84. The Bridge has proved and continues to be economically fruitful for the city coffers.22

The failure to expand the size of the city commission in 1950 was not the last attempt to change the form of city government. The City Council submitted and approved on November 23, 1965 an ordinance calling for an election for a new city charter. The ballot came with two questions, the first being “SHALL A COMMISSION BE CHOSEN TO FRAME A NEW CHARTER?” The voting on this question was designed strangely. A voter had to mark out the word “NO” to indicate a yes vote, and vice-versa. The second part listed a number of prominent citizens who could be elected to the Charter Commission. The ballot also allowed for write-in names. The second reading passed on December 7th, and the third on December 14th. The vote carried solidly with 269 in favor and 93 opposed. All of the proposed commission members were approved with negligible write-in votes cast.23

The Charter Commission returned to Council on March 20, 1967 with a proposal. Council approved it unanimously and ordered the charter election for May 27, 1967. Six-thousand copies were printed for the public.24

The key change in the proposal was a conversion from the “commission” form of city government to a “council-manager” form. This would have at least three major policy implications. First, the power of the mayor would be greatly diminished. Second, the mayor and council members would no longer have direct authority over the day-to-day operations of the city departments. Third, the council would be expanded from a total of three members all elected at-large to a total of seven with three elected from specific districts. This would allow more people to sit in charge of policy-making for the city and allow neighborhoods to promote their interests. This (in conjunction with national trends such as the elimination of the poll tax) offered more opportunities for Hispanics to win elective office. (None of the mayors and only a tiny number of commissioners had been Hispanic up to this time.)

The election results offer a strange mix of support and rejection. Precinct 1 included the old part of Del Rio including Main Street, most of the business district and all the land west of San Felipe Creek but south of the railroad tracks. Precinct 2 was all the territory north of the railroad tracks. Precinct 3 was the San Felipe neighborhoods east of the Creek. Precinct 1 voted two-to-one in favor at 631-350. Precinct 2 voted overwhelmingly in favor at 921-181. This predominantly Hispanic Precinct 3 voted overwhelmingly against 80-1,039. Overall, the vote totaled 1,632 in favor and 1,570 against.25

On the day the votes were canvassed, May 31st, the City Commission became a City Council and shortly thereafter City Secretary E.W. Marlowe was hired as City Manager. The current members of the Commission remained in office but were renamed Councilmen serving as an interim council until elections could be organized.26

The new Charter continued the property ownership requirements and effectively stiffened that clause by requiring the mayor and council members all have to meet the requirement for two years. Residency requirements were also increased to two years for all seven members. The position of Mayor, however, was greatly reduced in power; the Mayor held ceremonial powers but had “no regular administrative duties.” Essentially, the administrative powers were all transferred to the City Manager who had the power to hire and fire city staff. The manager could be from anywhere, but during his tenure of office, he was required to reside within the city limits.27

The ordinance calling for the first election under the adopted charter was not called until January 9th of 1968. The Mayor and Council Members Place A, Place B, and Place C were to be elected at-large, while Council Member District 1, District 2, and District 3 were to be elected by the voters in those three voting precincts. The specifics of the election, including election judges, were established at the next meeting on January 22nd.28

The election was held on April 2nd with 4,858 votes canvassed. Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez was elected Mayor, and four other people elected with clean majorities. The District 2 and District 3 elections each had three-way splits and required run-off elections. Those were held and the winners seated May 14, 1968, and the complete new City Council was in place.29

The three districts initially followed the traditional Del Rio precinct boundaries without regard to population. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decision during the 1960s forced a change in this policy. The Charter defined the old district boundaries but also stated that council should make adjustments in the boundaries to keep the populations of the three districts roughly equal. As the city’s population has grown, this requirement has pulled the two districts from south of the railroad tracks northward.

Another development found in the Charter is a throwback to some old, small-town government. The Charter allows for “qualified voters” to propose legislation under the power of initiative, and it also allows for referendum. The most interesting thing, however, is the power of the recall: “The mayor or any other member of the city council may be removed from office by recall.”30 Political fights have on several occasions become intense. One mayor has been removed from office. Another mayor and a number of council members have also faced recall challenges. The recall rules have in some ways made city politics more participatory but also more contentious.

The city also claimed in the charter something that the city had never before done—extra-territorial jurisdiction extending five miles beyond the city limits. Annexation had been relatively rare before the Second World War. However, developers in the post-war years were repeatedly petitioning annexation of their neighborhoods. That, combined with zoning ordinances, has prompted cities all across Texas to begin regulating development in lands that are likely to become part of the municipality.31

Since the adoption of the current charter, proposals for amending the City Charter have been offered from time to time. The frequency of the proposals would probably daze city leaders from the early years of city administration. New issues and new problems are constantly demanding attention. The last set of charter amendment proposals listed twenty-six (in addition to the election of mayor and three council members)—more than all the charter amendment proposals during the first sixty-one years of city government under the first three charters.

The City of Del Rio remains active governing the lives of some 33,000 within the corporate boundaries and another 10,000 in the extra-territorial jurisdiction.

 

Bibliography
City of Del Rio, Charter, 1905.
-----, Charter, 1911.
-----, Charter, 1918.
-----, Charter, 1967.
-----, Minute Books and Minute and Ordinance Books.
Val Verde County, County Commissioners Court Minutes, Books 2-3.
-----, Record of Election Returns, Book 1.
Analeslie Muncy, Texas Municipal Election Law Manual, Third Edition, Texas Municipal Clerks Association, Inc., 1997.
Doug Braudaway, “The History of Val Verde County,” unpublished manuscript.

 

Endnotes-
1 Doug Braudaway, “The History of Val Verde County,” unpublished manuscript, passam.
2 Val Verde County, Record of Election Returns, Book #1, Return of Special Election held in town of Del Rio and surrounding territory, Val Verde County, Texas on 27th day of May A.D. 1905, page 67.
3 Val Verde County, Record of Election Returns, Book #1, 21st day of June A.D. 1905, page 68.
4 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 1-3.
5 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 3-15.
6 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 9-13.
7 Val Verde County, Record of Election Returns, Book #1, 18th day of August A.D. 1906, page 70. The reason for the change in the number of aldermen is not given.
8 Val Verde County, County Commissioners Court Minutes, Book #2, pages 460-466.
9 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 52-56.
10 Val Verde County, County Commissioners Court Minutes, Book #3, page 33, dated February 1911.
11 Val Verde County, Commissioners Court Minutes #3, page 68, November 18, 1911, Order 6318.
12 City of Del Rio, Minute Book #1, pages 58-59; Analeslie Muncy, Texas Municipal Election Law Manual, Third Edition, Texas Municipal Clerks Association, Inc., 1997, page 2-2.
13 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 59-63.
14 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, page 55.
15 [City of Del Rio] Minutes Book 1, pages 333-353.
16 City of Del Rio, 1918 City Charter.
17 Book 2, pages 18-19.
18 Book 3, pages 100-113.
19 City of Del Rio, 1918 City Charter, Section 4.
20 Book 3, pages 175-210.
21 Book 5, pages 202-215.
22 Book 5, pages 423-448.
23 Book 7, pages 254-263.
24 Book 7, pages 355-356.
25 Book 7, pages 255, 378.
26 Book 7, pages 378-381.
27 City of Del Rio, 1967 City Charter.
28 Book 7, pages 414-419.
29 Book 7, pages 436-447.
30 City of Del Rio, 1967 City Charter.
31 City of Del Rio, 1967 City Charter.