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Injunction to stop city hall demolition on hold

By Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
Published On: Jan 14 2014 07:48:35 PM CST

ABC-7s Matthew Smith reports.

EL PASO, Texas -

The wait to determine what's next for City Hall continues.

El Paso struck a deal with Mountain Star Sports earlier this year to build a downtown ballpark. That plan calls to demolish City Hall, and use the land as the site for the ballpark; however, a former mayor isn't letting that happen.

Ray Salazar filed suit in federal court last month. He, and several other plaintiffs, claim that the city of El Paso is unlawfully spending taxpayer money and depriving Mexican-Americans/Chicano/Latinos the ability to vote.

On Friday a hearing was held in Judge David Guardderrama's courtroom to determine whether he should issue an injunction to stop the demolition of City Hall. Fernando Chacon, the lawyer representing Salazar, argued that the injunction was needed to assure that voters would be given a say in whether City Hall should be demolished or not in a vote that could potentially go before voters in March.

However, there is no guarantee that a vote will be held. It was an issue the judge questioned himself.

"I guess I'm wondering why you're invoking the power of the U.S. District Court for something that may not pass," questioned Guardderrama.

Here's the issue: According to El Paso's city charter, an ordinance will go before city council for a vote if enough signatures are collected by petitioners. If that ordinance fails, a second petition can be signed to put the issue on an upcoming ballot.

In September, petitioners attempted to overturn a deal between the city of El Paso and Mountain Star Sports Group, the group that was in the midst of acquiring a Triple-A baseball team to bring to El Paso. When the petition was voted down by city representatives, a move was made to start a second petition that would go on a future ballot. Currently the city clerk is validating signatures to determine whether the second petition meets the number of votes needed to go on a ballot for El Paso voters to determine.

Chacon believes the injunction should be granted because more than 2,000 signatures were collected and he believes the petition will move onto the ballot phase. However, the city's lawyer argued in court that the ordinance that would appear on the ballot would be the same language that appeared during a city council session in September. That language didn't ask for City Hall to not be demolished. It only asked for a deal to recall the initial approval for a deal between the city and Mountain Star Sports inked in June.

Confusion seemed to cloak the courtroom most of the day. Over the course of five hours and seven minutes, "objection" seemed to be the most common word of the day. Chacon ran into multiple situations where objections prevented him from asking questions for more than three tries in a row. Later, he had issues entering emails sent from City Manager Joyce Wilson that seemed to build most of his case. The judge wouldn't let the emails in as an exhibit because Stephanie Townsend-Allala, who received the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, wasn't there, and the man Chacon wanted to read the emails into the record was given them second hand.

After a few calls Townsend-Allala arrived just in the nick of time. Federal court closes it's doors at 5 p.m. While the trial would continue no one would be allowed into the building. Townsend-Allala arrived moments before doors were locked, allowed Chacon to enter his most damning piece of evidence, an email quoting Wilson as saying, "I hope we can hold them up so we can pass the November ballot."

Few other things seemed to go the way of the plaintiffs. Salazar seemed lost on the stand at times, and afterwards accused someone of changing the language on the petition passed around El Paso earlier this year.

"The problem is two of the individuals that signed it say that they changed something and inserted something that they hadn't seen before," said Salazar.

Salazar went on to say that he still believes in his fight to save City Hall. He asked reporters after the hearing how they would feel if someone took their home and said it was for a better cause.

Whether City Hall is saved from a wrecking ball remains to be seen. Chacon was given until Wednesday at 4 p.m. To come up with a legal brief that explains what wording would go on the ballot.

Lowell Denton, the lawyer representing the city, didn't say how he felt about the case afterwards, but seemed certain of the arguments he presented in court.

"I made the argument I believe to be correct, and we'll wait and see what the judge says," said Denton.

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