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Ballpark and bond language remain in spotlight

By Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
Published On: Oct 25 2012 08:18:33 PM CDT
Updated On: Dec 25 2012 04:49:19 PM CST

ABC-7's Matthew Smith reports.

El Paso, TEXAS -

Votes are being cast, but questions remain whether those casting ballots know what they're voting on.

When it comes to the Quality of Life bond bond, a lot of talk centers on Proposition No. 3. That's the bond proposition tied to a downtown ballpark project for the city of El Paso.

Proposition No. 3 reads: "Authorizing the city of El Paso, Texas to designate the minor league baseball stadium project as a sports and community venue project within the city in accordance with applicable law and to impose a tax on the occupancy of a room in a hotel located within the city, at the maximum rate of two percent (2%) of the price paid for such rooms, for the purpose of financing such venue project."

City leaders contend that the vote does not allow for voters to determine whether a ballpark will be built. As recently as this month, the city's website actually read "Please note: Voters will be voting on a two percent (2%) increase in the hotel occupancy tax (HOT) only. Voters will not be voting on the ballpark project itself. An increase in the HOT tax will allow for visitors to pay for the majority of the ballpark project not its residents."

That statement was removed following a criminal complaint filed by an El Paso lawyer. When asked about the reasoning for taking down the statement, an El Paso city spokesperson said the advice to remove the item came from the city attorney.

While the statement has been removed, city officials seem to stand by that reasoning. Bill Aleshire, one of the lawyers involved in the criminal complaint against El Paso's city manager, doesn't think that's enough. He told ABC-7 that the city needs to be more honest about what Proposition No. 3 stands for.

"It is not even debatable whether the voters are voting on the project," said Aleshire by email. "The statute cited in the city's ordinance calling the election requires both the project and its method of financing to be submitted to the voters."

Aleshire pointed to the legal opinion of David Brooks, a lawyer who specializes in municipal law. In a letter of opinion Brooks said voters are, in fact, voting for the downtown ballpark. He contends that since the process to fund the project would begin anew, the vote actually represents a vote for the ballpark.

The entire debate centers around a 49-page law known as Government Code 334. It states that in order to deem a project a "venue project" a municipality must pass "(a) resolution approved by the majority of the qualified voters of the municipality or county voting at an election ..."

While Aleshire and Brooks argue the city hasn't done so, Deputy City Manager Bill Studer said they're doing just that by placing Proposition No. 3 on the ballot. Studer counters that it doesn't mean voters are casting ballots for, or against, the ballpark. According to Studer, they're simply voting on a funding mechanism. If the proposition fails, the city would move onto a new funding mechanism.

"I'm confident we're doing it the right way," said Studer. "We're presenting it the best we can to voters so they know what it is they're voting on."

Studer said El Paso's city attorney, bond attorney and the attorney general have had discussions. So far, nothing has been said that would sway their belief that the city is doing anything improper. The attorney general would have a final say in the matter following an election, however, he would not rule on bond language prior to the vote taking place.

"The city has the right to build facilities, it doesn't need to go to the voters to build facilities," said Studer.

Aleshire said the city is opening itself up to the possibility of a lawsuit. Whether a lawsuit would be filed, he has not yet said.

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