El Paso

Arena ballot language scrutinized during court hearing, former city manager grilled on the stand

Opening Arguments: Duranguito/Arena...

AUSTIN, Texas - The face-off that's been brewing since last October between the City and those who oppose the construction of an arena in the Duranguito neighborhood is underway in Austin.

The biggest issue during opening statements Monday morning was the wording on the ordinance voters approved. The City of El Paso spent the majority of opening arguments explaining the ballot language for the multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center was inclusive. 

The language, the City argued, allows a variety of uses and locations. Its attorney argued the ordinance is broadly phrased to support the city's use of discretion, saying the "multipurpose performing arts and entertainment facility" should be allowed to house sporting events since it includes the word "entertainment."

"The city selected the Union Plaza area for many valid reasons, including its location next to the El Paso Convention Center, literally, across the street, and because the zoning at that time permitted that kind of facility," Scott Incerto, an attorney for the City, said. "There really is no serious debate 'entertainment' is broad enough to include sports, concerts, music and a variety of other types of activities."

Attorney's representing Duranguito residents argued voters were deceived, saying the 2012 Quality of Life bond did not specify a sports facility, rather, museums, a cultural and performing arts center and library facilities.

An attorney representing Dr. Max Grossman, a historian and activist leading the fight against the arena, said the voter-approved 2012 quality of life bond never stated it would be used to fund a sports facility. "That's precisely what the city wants to do here. They want to backdoor a sports venue in through this performing arts proposition and they want to do it by saying the only words that matter are that they chose to describe this particular, individual facility using the words 'multipurpose' and 'entertainment'. They want to lift it completely out of context and that's just unacceptable," the attorney, Cassandra McCrae, said.

Former El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson was grilled on the stand about the steps taken to approve the downtown arena. During her time as city manager, Wilson spearheaded the City's planning of the Quality of Life Bond projects and Downtown revitalization.

Attorney Carmen Rodriguez, representing Duranguito residents opposed to the arena, tried to show the plan for the arena was created by the Paso Del Norte group, a private group of business leaders who - Rodriguez implied - could stand to profit from the deal without input from the residents.

"At this point, it sounds like this is a PDN plan, correct," Rodriguez asked. 

"Up until that point, it was," Wilson replied.

When asked by the attorney if the city planed on building a basketball arena, Wilson replied "no."

The attorney later asked, "at the time you were city manager, was it your knowledge the city was going to build a facility solely for sports?"

"No," Wilson answered.

"For arts," the attorney asked. "No," Wilson replied.

Wilson claims the city had no intention of building an arena strictly for sports, something the city is trying to prove.

Attorney's representing those against the arena say the wording on the proposition never mentioned sports, only stating the bond would be used for libraries, museums, a cultural and performing arts facility, and improvements.

"Some may make different judgements on how to design it, whether it may be contemporary or traditional, whether to include sports or not, what kind of sports to include, all those kinds of things. People may make different judgements on those things, but those decisions rest with the El Paso City Council, which is a government body from whom the law vests its authority. And no court, as the Texas Supreme Court said in Lewis vs Fort Worth, may interfere with that discretion or substitute its judgement for that of the city's," Incerto argued.

The court hearing will decide whether or not the city can go forward with plans for the arena or if the neighborhood will be preserved.  

The group representing the Duranguito neighborhood threatened to sue the City in April in efforts to keep the City from building the arena there.

El Paso attorney Frank Ainsa wants the City to select an alternate site for the arena and threatened a lawsuit on the grounds that "the arena does not qualify as the voter approved multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment facility."

The City then asked a judge to issue a declaratory judgment, a ruling, confirming the validity of the Downtown arena bond and its authority to proceed with construction in Downtown El Paso.

"We always do the best to present the best case we can," City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth said, "Courts are unpredictable places. We have a duty to present all of the cases for the judge's consideration."

The final day of the hearing is Tuesday, July 18, 2017. ABC-7 will be streaming the hearing live beginning at 8:15 am.




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