It’s been seven years since El Paso voters approved a $473 million quality of life bond package and two years since the city initiated litigation in Austin to get things moving on the biggest project, a multipurpose arts and entertainment center priced at $180 million.
Now, two years and $2.5 million in city legal bills later, the litigation roads have led the city, UTEP professor Max Grossman and the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid agency to the Texas Supreme Court.
One of the issues is whether the city can build an arena that will also accommodate basketball because it wasn’t on the 2012 ballot, and city leaders are nervous because the Supreme Court has called for legal briefs on the question.
The Grossman and TRLA suits contend that the city didn’t use the word “sports” regarding the arena until it issued a request for qualifications for companies that would be interested in managing the facility in 2015.
It read, “The city’s ultimate objective is to build a first-class, sustainable arena that provides a flexible and usable sports and entertainment venue to the public.”
Another issue before the high court deals with the city’s efforts to demolish the buildings in Duranguito and proceed with an archaeological survey of what history lies underground using ground penetrating radar.
Grossman contends there is as much history worth saving below ground as there is above because long before El Paso’s first buildings went up in Duranguito in the late 1800s, there was a large Apache community in that area established by the Spanish.
That history will be the subject of an academic symposium at UTEP’s Magoffin Auditorium Oct. 14.
The first briefs from Grossman’s attorneys and TRLA are due this week with the city’s to follow next month. If the state’s highest court decides to hear the challengers’ case, a final decision on the arena could be another year off.
“We’re completely stopped,” said City Engineer Sam Rodriguez. “We’re not authorized to spend any money on furthering the project along until we’re cleared by the court.”
While the arena project is at a standstill, work is proceeding on the $60 million Downtown children’s museum, a $5.7 million Mexican American Cultural Center in the Downtown library and a long list of neighborhood projects, helped along by $161 million in City Council approved bonds.
On Nov. 5, El Paso voters will decide on a $413 million bond proposition for public safety and road projects.
In its legal efforts to preserve Duranguito, TRLA is focusing on the 2012 ballot that proposed the entertainment center and citing cases going back to 1888 saying language matters.
That team of attorneys includes TRLA staff lawyers Veronica Carbajal, Maggie Barnes and Meredith Stewart along with Carmen Rodriguez, who is in private practice in El Paso.
The latest case they point to came out of Austin’s Third District Court of Appeals, which disallowed ballot language proposed by the Austin City Council.
That case involved a citizen petition to require the city to seek voter approval before using hotel occupancy taxes to expand a convention center and to prioritize the use of those taxes for cultural, historic and heritage tourism purposes.
Going back to the earliest case dealing with ballot language and public spending, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1888 that a ballot proposition must “submit the question … with such definiteness and certainty that the voters are not misled.”
TRLA is not only challenging the proposition that led to the selection of Duranguito for the arena but also the allocation of just $5.7 million for the Mexican American Cultural Center.
Before the election, it was described as one of the three “signature” Downtown projects.
As for the arena proposition, Barnes said, “The explicit language in the bond ordinance was taken out.
“There was nothing to indicate a sports arena or a huge structure.”
Rodriguez predicts that the briefing process before the Supreme Court probably won’t be completed until March.
“The Supreme Court could take a long time – as long as they want,” she said.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.