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Majority of City Council say City should not pay mayor's legal bills

By Maria Garcia
Published On: Apr 09 2013 07:52:20 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 07:05:12 PM CST

ABC-7's Maria Garcia reports.

EL PASO, Texas -

Every city representative who ABC-7 spoke with Tuesday said they would not agree to have the City pay for Mayor John Cook's legal bills.

Cook said he owes about $570,000 in legal fees. The fees stem from a lawsuit he filed against petitioners who tried to recall him.

The petitioners tried to oust him from office because he voted to overturn a citizens referendum that stripped away the health insurance of gay and unwed partners of city employees.

City Council had previously voted to extend health insurance for domestic partners but a group of religious leaders and pastors fought to bring the issue to voters, who denied gay and unmarried partners city health insurance.

The mayor believes the City and the District Attorney should have stepped in to stop petitioners because he believes they broke the law. His lawyers argued petitioners used church resources for political activity when they circulated recall petitions in churches. Petitioners interpret state law differently and believe what they did was legal.

The mayor now also argues petitioners didn't have the right in the first place - to change council's decision on domestic partners.

"The citizens do not have the right to referendum. No matter what lawyer Tom Brown thinks. The citizens only have a right of referendum which is changing an action of the city council if it has to do with collective bargaining," he said Tuesday.

Bishop Tom Brown, one of the leaders who fought to strip away the health insurance of domestic partners and later to oust the mayor said Cook is wrongfully interpreting the city charter.

"You cannot strip away the peoples right to pass ordinances. Just because they rescind an existing policy doesn't make it a referendum," Brown told the Council Tuesday.

He asked if the city attorney would clarify that issue for him but the mayor told him to consult his own attorney.

When asked why taxpayers should pay for his legal fees if he ultimately decided to sue, Cook said he was forced to stop illegal activity. "Well I think they (the public) should also say 'wasn't it an obligation of the District Attorney's office to stop an illegal activity rather than forcing the mayor into a position where he had to be the one to do that?' I mean I'm not the only one who knew what was going on."

City Representatives Susie Byrd, Steve Ortega, Michiel Noe, Eddie Holguin and Ann Morgan Lilly said they would not agree to the city paying Cook's fees. The rest of council could not be reached by deadline.

"He did an important thing and he stood up to bullies who didn't follow the law and felt the law didn't' apply to them but you cannot use public dollars for campaign activity and essentially that effort was campaign activity because they were trying to get him out of office," said Byrd, who also faced a recall by the same petitioners for restoring health insurance for gay and unwed partners.

"The community should step up and support him and help him pay legal fees because everyone benefited from someone who stood up for fairness and the recall petitioners should pay for it, too," she added.

Holguin was more harsh. "The mayor had options. He could have resigned. He could have allowed it to go to a vote. He could have faced the voters."

Lilly said allowing the city to pay for Cook's bills would "set a bad precedent."

"I don't think it's the city's responsibility to do that. He chose to fight it. It might have been a noble fight but it was his own fight," said Noe.

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