When city officials started asking residents last spring how they would improve El Paso, more than 5,000 comments poured in.
Now a close look at comment cards and a database of all 5,000 responses reveals what could be called cheating, ballot stuffing and maybe even fraud.
Those suspect cards pushed the apparent desire for an arena or stadium to the top of requests for Downtown signature projects, and helped land a $180-million multi-purpose arena on the bond ballot.
And the city has cited the apparent support for a Downtown sports facility in trying to show there’s also support for a baseball stadium.
A review by El Paso Inc. shows that the second-most frequent request, for a “soccer stadium/arena,” is handwritten on 542 comment cards that bear names and addresses. The handwriting indicates that all of those cards were written by the same one or two people.
The November ballot does not refer to an arena specifically, but it’s described as a “multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment” facility that’s part of $473 million in quality of life propositions voters are being asked to approve.
The cards with “soccer stadium/arena” are strikingly different from others because they are nearly identical, one after another, by the hundreds.
When that unusual circumstance was pointed out to city officials, they decided against removing the questionable comments from the database of responses.
Just who was responsible for them is unclear. But two men with soccer connections in El Paso and Juárez – Mitch Doblado and Gil Cantu – apparently had a hand in their preparation and submission to the city.
“Mr. Doblado did bring some cards in here,” city Rep. Emma Acosta told El Paso Inc. “I don’t remember the other gentleman.”
Doblado, whose name comes first in a series of exactly 400 comments on the city’s original database taken from the cards, is the former general manager of the El Paso Patriots, a minor league soccer team.
“Mitch does not work for us anymore,” said a spokesman for the Patriots. “He hasn’t worked for us for at least a year.”
Doblado was also associated with the El Paso Generals, an arena football team that played at the El Paso Coliseum in 2009. The team no longer exists.
Cantu is the former vice president of the Juárez Indios soccer team, which played and folded in 2009 and is the subject of an acclaimed documentary released in March called “Vamos Indios!”
Repeated efforts by El Paso Inc. to reach Doblado and Cantu were unsuccessful.
Did they know?
At issue is whether more than 500 people whose names are written on those comment cards by someone else participated in a city presentation or knew their names, addresses and phone numbers were to be used.
Some did, but it seems clear that many, if not the vast majority, did not.
Nearly all of the addresses are in Far East El Paso or Horizon City ZIP codes.
El Paso Inc. reached a number of people by phone who said they knew nothing about it and hung up.
One East Side resident whose name, address and phone number were used is Carolina Weber. Her husband answered the phone when El Paso Inc. called last week.
“She wouldn’t do it,” he said sharply, when asked if she had expressed her support for a stadium on a card or in some other way. “If anyone was going to do it, it would have been me. She would never do that.”
He asked her and she could be heard saying she didn’t know about it.
A few of those cards carry the Westside ZIP code of 79912. One has the name of Timothy Olivas, who said he knows Cantu.
“We used to be in an adult soccer league over 35,” Olivas said. “I signed a paper and gave him my address and phone.
“He said he was trying to get support for a soccer stadium and I said I’m up for that. I gave him my consent for him to sign me up.”
Early this year, city employees had been typing information from the cards into an Excel spreadsheet.
But as the March 10 deadline for submitting public comments approached, cards were coming in too fast. So the city turned to UTEP’s Institute for Policy and Economic Development, or IPED, for help.
The job of inputting the data fell to undergraduate research assistants, and questions about the hundreds of nearly identical cards soon arose.
Roberto Tinajero, who was in charge of the project at IPED, said he told the city that they had noticed something strange about some of the comment cards.
“I just mentioned that we noticed some of the responses were similar or the same,” Tinajero said. “Only if you were blind would you not be able to see it.”
If the city had removed the 542 cards then, support for an arena or stadium Downtown would have diminished to 107 comments backing those kinds of projects.
Just over 70 people expressed strong opposition to a stadium or arena downtown.
Not an election
Former deputy city manager Debbie Hamlyn, who retired last month and is now a consultant for the El Paso Tomorrow PAC, was coordinating the presentations and the compiling of the public requests.
The Tomorrow PAC is campaigning in support of the bond propositions.
She said the problem with the comment cards “was not brought to our attention until late in the process” and that was by Debbie Nathan, a reporter for Newspaper Tree, an El Paso non-profit that has yet to publish because the Internal Revenue Service hasn’t approved its federal nonprofit status.
No one from IPED questioned the cards, Hamlyn said.
In any case, she said, the city wasn’t in a position to start double checking comment cards.
“It was an open and democratic process. No one was probing into it.” she said. “We just accepted what we got.”
City manager Joyce Wilson also recalls being questioned about the cards by Nathan in late May and sending City Council members a detailed briefing memorandum about it.
“These cards were not the sole basis for the decisions and recommendations,” Wilson said. “It was part of a broad process that included a lot of input. The cards were just one vehicle for people to submit comments.”
In addition to the comments, she said, there was polling on preferences done by the Reuel Group, which El Paso Tomorrow hired, and recommendations from council members based on what they were hearing from their districts.
The comment process, she said, was not an election.
“I remember when it came up because legal came to me about a guy and a group of cards,” Wilson said. “We didn’t go through and verify signatures like you do on a petition. We accepted them as they were given.
“I think, legal may have turned them over to the authorities because somebody was submitting people’s names falsely. But it would be up to the individual citizens to determine whether or not they want to make a complaint, not us.”
Among the thousands of comment cards handed into the city during the presentations around town or through privately organized efforts, there are many written partially by one person or with some pre-printed requests.
That’s true for hundreds of cards calling for the streetcar corridor, an Olympic-style swimming pool and for zoo improvements.
Those cards are evidence of organized efforts, but the names and addresses they carry are clearly written by almost as many people as there are names.
In Matthew Peet’s case, his wife filled out a card for him that read simply “Improve zoo,” like many others.
Reached at his home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Peet said he was in the Army and stationed at Fort Bliss last spring when he and his wife visited the El Paso Zoo.
“I think there was a group of people there pushing for the zoo, and my wife was asked to fill out what she would like to see done,” he said. “We both said, ‘improve the zoo,’ and that’s how it all went down.”
Those and other projects were requested in more than 3,700 comment cards that came in during and after 51 city presentations. The 4-by-11 inch comment cards were supposed to represent the wants and desires of the people whose names were written at the top. About 1,100 more comments came through the city’s website.
By late March, the city had a database of nearly 5,000 comments for dozens of projects.
Then in April, city officials and consultants began making presentations to City Council and the public about the biggest bond election in the city’s.
The No.-1 item that appears in identical language on 1,317 comment cards is for a “streetcar corridor between UTEP & Downtown.” But that project didn’t make the bond because it was already on Sun Metro’s agenda and could be funded with $90 million from the Texas Department of Transportation.
The second most frequent was for the soccer stadium/arena.
Originally, the bond propositions were to include a professional soccer stadium in the Downtown area. But the city dropped it because El Paso doesn’t have a major league soccer team. Officials also worried that its high price would cause voter “sticker shock” and hurt the other propositions.
On Nov. 6, El Pasoans will vote on two quality of life bond propositions totaling $473 million, and a third measure calling for an increase in the hotel occupancy tax to finance a baseball stadium where City Hall now stands.
This Tuesday, City Council is to vote on a long-term lease of the City Hall property to the MountainStar Sports Group, which plans to bring a Triple A baseball team to El Paso.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.