El Paso

Ethics complaint accuses four City Council members, Mayor of violating Open Meetings Act

EL PASO, Texas - El Paso resident Jud Burgess filed a formal ethics complaint against El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser and four city representatives over their participation in a closed door meeting with some of those opposed to the original proposed location of the Downtown arena.

After Friday's meeting, it was announced City Council would discuss a proposal to build the arena in the convention center complex, which the City already owns.

"We can look to other communities like Omaha, Nebraska who said, 'Why not combine the two? Why not have an arena and a convention center in the same facility? You don't have to pay maintenance on both. You don't have to pay utilities on both,'" said City Representative Cortney Niland.

A group of residents and historians opposed the original location, arguing people would have to relocate, businesses would have to close, and historical buildings would be torn down.

The original "targeted footprint" for the arena would be bound by West San Antonio Avenue, South Santa Fe Street, West Paisano Street, and Leon Street. Opponents are against the city demolishing buildings with a historical and cultural value in order to build the arena there.

Dr. Max Grossman, opposed to the original location, told ABC-7 Friday he was contacted by City Rep. Lily Limon. "She asked me if I was willing to organize a meeting with four members of City Council our inner circle in the opposition." After the meeting, Grossman said he was excited about Tuesday's City Council meeting, when he expects a major announcement regarding the arena.

In his complaint filed Monday, Burgess states,  "I believe the Mayor and four City Council members named in this complaint intentionally conspired to avoid quorum by gaming The Texas Open Meetings Act and participating in a rolling quorum, which allowed them to conduct closed-door meetings without public notice."

The complaint goes on to state, "City Council members and the Mayor cannot rotate members in the meeting over small periods of time to avoid meeting the number that constitutes a quorum for the purpose of avoiding giving public notice."

Burgess further states in the complaint, "Outside parties, such as the citizens who participated in the meeting, are not allowed to attend executive sessions as in this case."

According to the complaint, City Representatives Lily Limon, Jim Tolbert, and Peter Svarzbein met in the Mayor's office privately before 10 a.m. Friday with local citizens. Tolbert left the closed door meeting just before Mayor Leeser and Rep. Niland arrived to continue the meeting with local citizens, the complaint states.

At about 10: 30 a.m., Svarzbein left the closed door meeting, the complaint states. That was reportedly followed by the re-arrival of Tolbert at 10:45  a.m.

ABC-7 spoke with Niland Friday and asked her about the possibility Council violated the Open Meetings Act.  "No. No. No. No. We never were at a position where it was a quorum and we are always very cognizant of the open meetings act," Niland said, "The mayor and I were not participants in the first meeting and we were at the metropolitan organization meeting. We would never jeopardize putting anyone in that situation."

Burgess told ABC-7 penalties range from a $500 fine to six months in jail for those guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act in Texas. "The penalty I'm seeking is just to put them out in the public eye so people can see how they are going about without the public's involvement and without the public's approval," Burgess said.

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