Confusion continues to surround City Hall's future

Talks during City Council session surround petition/ballot language

City Hall Petition Talks

EL PASO, Texas - The future of City Hall remains a relative question mark.

While the city continues to make waves preparing to move its employees to clear space, and ultimately demolish City Hall, the end game of legal battles remains unclear.  

The city of El Paso previously took legal action to vacate their current property at 2 Civic Plaza Road, to build a baseball park.  The park would be home of the Tucson Padres, a team that was purchased by a group of El Paso-based businessmen under the name of MountainStar LLC.

On Tuesday, city representatives were expected to discuss the options of placing a petition, certified by the city clerk after more than 5,000 signatures were certified on a May ballot.  Instead, representatives voted a motion to do so down by a vote of 5 to 3.  Representatives Emma Acosta, Eddie Holguin and Carl Robinson were the lone representatives voting to put the petition on the ballot.

Legally the petition must go before the voters.  The city doesn't dispute that fact, however, they are waiting to put the May ballot together because they expect to have amendments to the El Paso city charter included.

Due to the Voting Rights Act, Texas must submit a ballot to the Department of Justice for approval before any vote can take place.  But city staff and hired attorneys say that wouldn't need to take place until February.

But whether a vote of El Pasoans would ultimately undo the city's plan to demolish City Hall remains a question.

Lowell Denton, who has represented the city of El Paso in several pieces of litigation tied to the demolition of City Hall, gave a presentation explaining where the city is at.

He made it clear his presentation was not legal opinion before stating, "There is not a right for the court to stop something that has been properly authorized just because there may be future legislative action, or an election, in the future that might change the outcome.  Again, that's a general principle that won't be resolved until court rulings in pending cases."

The court ruling he refers to is a lawsuit currently pending against the city of El Paso.  Salvador Gomez, who started the initial petition to repeal a resolution signed in June of this year, will be in court on January 10, 2013.  The outcome of that lawsuit will likely determine whether a future vote pertaining to the site of City Hall can stop a wrecking ball.

However, questions exist about the ballot language.

Because Gomez' petition was voted down by City Council in September, his next step was to collect enough votes to bring the issue forward for a vote of the people.  He did just that.  However, there remains questions about what his petition would do.

The city attorney, Sylvia Firth, and legal counsel hired by the city of El Paso have questioned if that language would, in fact, stop the demolition of City Hall.  The two sides, obviously, don't agree.

"The wording is perfect," said Gomez.  "It's being brought under scrutiny solely as a delay tactic."

But when David Ochoa, another man attempting to stop the destruction of City Hall, spoke before the city he questioned the language too.

"That's ridiculous," said Ochoa, after a city employee read the petition into the record.  "I can't follow it, and I'm reading it."

Ochoa wants a vote before the people, but was upset with the wording.  The city attorney stated during council's session that the wording couldn't be changed.  That petition language would eventually become ballot language per the city charter.

Ochoa, and others, are now circulating a second petition that aims to also be on a May ballot.  That ballot clearly requests that City Hall should not be demolished before an election is put before the voters of El Paso.

Whether two ballot items being placed on the same ballot would confuse voters remains a question to be answered.  Asked about it, the city attorney declined to speculate.

"We'll get to that if it happens, but that is an issue as well," said Firth.

Salvador Gomez' lawsuit will next be discussed in a Texas state court on January 10, 2013.  In the meantime, a plan is being made to move City Hall employees to temporary offices in preparation for the demolition of City Hall.

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