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City Council approves building baseball stadium; mayor can still veto

After a marathon City Council meeting, El Paso will get its Triple-A baseball team if Mayor John Cook does not veto council’s decision in the next five days.

Cook told ABC-7 he would not decide what he was going to do until Wednesday.

City Council voted to approve the building of a ballpark on the site of the current City Hall on Tuesday by a vote of 4-3 on agenda items 16A-C that had to do with approving the ballpark stadium and the term sheet with MountainStar Sports Group.

City representatives Susie Byrd, Cortney Niland, Ann Morgan Lilly, and Dr. Michiel Noe voted to approve agenda items 16A-C, while Eddie Holguin, Emma Acosta, and Carl Robinson voted against them. City Rep. Steve Ortega was not present because he is on his honeymoon.

The vote came at about 6:15 p.m. and after nearly more than 100 people spoke both in favor and against the ballpark. Read about the mayor’s veto power here.

MountainStar Sports Group’s Josh Hunt announced early on during the City Council meeting that the Pacific Coast League had approved the sale of the Tucson Padres to MountainStar Sports Group pending the approval of the stadium by City Council.

El Paso City Hall has been the site of many historic decisions in recent years, including the domestic partner benefits debate and the Trans Mountain freeway vote.

All had emotional debates that brought flocks of passionate people out to City Hall voice their opinions.

But City Hall was packed Tuesday in a way that topped even those discussions.

Shortly after 11 a.m., City Council began discussions on whether to tear down City Hall and build a $50 million dollar stadium with nearly 140 people signed up to speak on the topics.

The fire marshal stopped allowing people into City Council chambers because it had reached capacity. The second floor lobby of the building and another conference rooms the City used to seat people who came to witness the vote also overflowed.

The mayor, aware of all the raw emotion in the crowd, set a tone before the discussion began.

“This is very passionate issues for people on both sides of the argument, but that’s no reason to put decorum aside,” Cook said before the discussion began. “People are equally passionate on both sides of the issue. We have rules of order here at council, and one of them is no personal attacks, and I will be enforcing that rule.”

Cook reminded council members the rule applies to them, too. People who don’t comply will be asked to leave. He asked people listening outside chambers and in overflow areas to follow the same rules.

After a City staff presentation on the ballpark and City Hall, MountainStar Sports Group co-owner Paul Foster addressed City Council.

Foster acknowledged the concerns of some of the council members that the decision is not going to the voters but then he mentioned that only two of 20 of the most recent stadiums built nationally have gone to a vote. He said City Council has to make the decision it’s elected to make.

“This opportunity is in your hands,” Foster said. “I personally think it’s a good opportunity. The ownership group has pretty much done all it can do.”

Foster also said he has been involved in remodeling Downtown buildings and has worked with the City on San Jacinto remodeling and other projects. He added that true Downtown revitalization started when the El Paso Art Museum was built and with the restoration of the Plaza Theatre and that neither was approved by voters.

Not everyone attending the City Hall meeting was for the stadium. Stephanie Townsend Allala, a local attorney and member of Quality of Life Voters for Democracy, questioned the City’s authority to make the decision to build a ballpark without a funding source before Nov. 6.

She then asked if MountainStar Sports Group’s decision to donate all of its profits from the Triple-A team to local charities was in the contract with the City and how people would know the money was really being given to charity.

“Are they going to open up their financial records for us to review publicly?” Allala asked City Council.

Foster was then given the opportunity to answer Allala’s questions.

“As we’ve stated before we did make a decision for at least 10 years, which doesn’t mean it ends at the end of 10 years, it’s just the amount of time Woody (Hunt) and I felt going out on a commitment like this,” Foster said. “But we will commit 100 percent of the profits of this enterprise to charitable causes in the El Paso area.”

While members of the audience applauded, Allala asked Foster “how will we know?”

“My answer to how you’ll know is simply to look at our track record,” Foster said as Allala appeared to smirk at him. “As Woody and I were talking about (this) he said ‘you know, if we were trying to put more money on the bottom line, wouldn’t we just quit giving money away?'”

That got a laugh from some in the crowd and even Allala, who was standing next to Foster.

“No, we will not put it in the contract because we are not interested in being audited by naysayers out there and you can take our word for it,” Foster said before being interrupted by Allala, who asked Foster not to call her names.

Foster finished by saying “if you don’t believe us then don’t take it into account.

There were a couple of moments of levity from speakers, including when KISS-FM morning show co-host Tricia Martinez said, “People say El Pasoans won’t support a losing team but how many El Pasoans own a Dallas Cowboy jersey?”

Earlier in the meeting, before the ballpark discussion was taken up, members of the public cheered when one of the speakers called for City Manager Joyce Wilson’s job.

Shortly thereafter, cheers rose again when a member of the public came to the defense of Niland. Former Mayor Ray Salazar is attempting to recall Niland for her part in supporting the Downtown ballpark.

“This is about our right to vote, stupid,” said one member angrily.

While the mayor has the power to veto a vote by City Council, if he did so, it would have to come back to a vote by City Council at a later date. If this occurs, six city representatives will have to vote against the mayor to ensure a ballpark is built in Downtown El Paso.

On Monday, Wilson tried to get ahead of questions about the ballpark by holding a news conference. In that conference a lengthy discussion, Wilson and staffers talked about funding.

According to the city’s chief financial officer if the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT tax) passes in November the ballpark would be paid off within the 25 years if their predictions hold true.

According to the documentation the City’s total debt would be around $96 million, but in a 25 year span using HOT tax money, ticket surcharge money, rent from the ballpark and parking fees the city could see a return of $121 million.

Without the HOT tax, however, the City would be on the hook for around $79 million that would have to come out of the general fund.

Web Producer Leonard Martinez contributed to this story

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