Since 2017, El Paso taxpayers have paid $3.3 million in legal fees surrounding the controversial downtown multi-purpose cultural and performing arts center — and the costs will continue to rise as litigation unfolds. will continue.
At least $50,000 was billed to the city through May this year by Austin-based law firm Alexander Dubose Jefferson Townsend and El Paso-based law firm Kemp Smith, according to documents obtained by the through the Texas Public Information Act.
City Attorney Karla Nieman, in an interview with El Paso Matters, could not say how much longer the litigation could last, or how much the legal fees will add up. There is no cap on court costs.
She said the city hired outside counsel because of the complexity of the subject and the volume of cases filed by opponents.
Kemp Smith charges the city hourly rates ranging from $220 to $380, while Jefferson Townsend charges $200 to $1,000 per hour, according to documents. Details of the expenses subject to solicitor-client privilege were redacted in documents released to El Paso Matters.
Approximately $1.4 million of the total fees was used for legal fees related to the real estate acquisition of properties within the arena footprint.
Nieman said the city is appealing to the Texas Supreme Court while continuing negotiations with Max Grossman and Houston conservative JP Bryan. Bryan funds the legal challenges against the city. Grossman declined to comment on their legal fees.
A professor of art history at the University of Texas at El Paso and active in historic preservation efforts, Grossman argues that the Duranguito site and buildings have historic value and should be preserved.
“JP and I remain firmly of the belief that the Duranguito neighborhood is worth saving and would have more economic value to the fully restored town than if it were replaced by an ‘arena’ or whatever. ‘other,” Grossman said in email responses. at El Paso Matters.
In 2012, El Paso voters overwhelmingly approved a $180 million bond issue to build a multi-purpose event center, which the city then proposed to build in the Duranguito neighborhood at Union Plaza. downtown.
The city has about $155 million of the remaining $180 million budget, according to city documents. Expenditures to date include land acquisition, appraisals, project consultation and unspecified construction costs.
City officials have repeatedly said the cost of the project is underestimated. Several projects from the 2012 bond package passed under former mayor John Cook, former city manager Joyce Wilson and a former council cost millions more than originally allocated – some in part because the community lobbied for larger-scale projects than expected under the bond.
The city is currently conducting a feasibility study that aims to “re-imagine” the project and determine its true cost to date. The study will also examine the possibility of incorporating existing buildings into the arena’s footprint in the design – a compromise that could facilitate its negotiations with Grossman.
Lawsuits have lingered and rebounded in Texas courts since the city filed a bail posting suit in Austin in 2017. Grossman was one of the respondents in that lawsuit. The lower court ruled the city was not allowed to use quality of life bonds to build a sports arena, but an appeals court ultimately ruled in favor of the city in 2018.
Taxpayers paid about $1.3 million for the bond validation trial, documents show. The city hired three outside law firms for the litigation. Norton Rose Fulbright, the city’s longtime bond attorney, was paid about $738,000, San Antonio-based law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal Hyde & Zech was paid about $56,000, and Alexander Dubose Jefferson Townsend was paid about $500,000, according to documents.
Where is the dispute
Nieman said the recent appeal to the state Supreme Court, if successful, will determine whether Grossman — as a private citizen — had the right to sue the city in 2019 for obtaining a permit from the Historical Commission. of Texas to conduct a required archaeological investigation.
Grossman’s lawsuit alleges, in part, that the permit granted for the archaeological survey required by the Texas Antiquities Code before performing any work on the arena site was flawed because it did not include specialized procedures to allow the detection of the remains of indigenous peoples. including members of the Mescalero Apache tribe, who may be buried at the arena site.
“The law does not specify that a third party can sue a government entity for obtaining a permit or prevent the issuance of a permit,” Nieman said, adding that the archaeological study of the city would include research and preservation of all potential artifacts.
Nieman said Austin’s Third Court of Appeals had previously ruled in favor of the Texas Historical Commission on the same legal issue and determined that the THC was correct in issuing the city its license to conduct the investigation. archaeological.
She said if the Texas Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal and rules in favor of the city, the city can proceed with the archaeological investigation.
If the court refuses to hear the appeal, it could send the case back to the trial court.
Nieman said the appeal is necessary to ensure the city maintains government immunity from lawsuits when applying for permits for other projects in the future.
Asked if she thinks Grossman would continue to sue if the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the city, Nieman said, “I anticipate he will continue to litigate.”
Grossman said he had no comment on his future litigation plans or legal strategies.
The city and Grossman have reached an agreement that the city will not proceed with the archaeological investigation until there is an agreement between the parties or until 30 days after the appeal to the court is concluded. State Supreme Court.