Acrimonious debate erupts over eminent domain idea: El Paso TX Times, 3/21/07

By Tammy Fonce-Olivas

An attempt by Mayor John Cook to bridge the rift between the city and some local business owners over the use of eminent domain to revitalize Downtown failed at Tuesday's City Council meeting after his proposal sparked a heated debate.

Cook proposed an ordinance that would have defined the city's use of eminent domain as it relates to the Downtown redevelopment plan.

The mayor said he used a similar Austin ordinance as a model because Stuart Blaugrund, the lawyer for Land Grab Opponents of El Paso, recently recommended to the council that El Paso be as progressive as Austin.

But the proposed ordinance did not include Austin's definition of the word "blighted," nor did it include another definition for "blighted" as it pertains to dealing with run-down property in Downtown. The omission led to a passionate debate among council members and the public.

Jerry Rosenbaum, who heads the Land Grab Opponents of El Paso, one of several groups opposing the city's Downtown redevelopment plan, referred to the proposed ordinance as a "smoke screen." He said it would not have protected the interests of Downtown property owners because it failed to define "blighted."

"They seem willing to take non-blighted properties," Rosenbaum said.

Assistant City Attorney Sylvia Firth told the council that Austin's definition of "blighted" was not included in the mayor's proposed ordinance because state legislators are revising the definition and Austin's definition is "troubling to us."

The council ended up voting 7-0 to delete the proposed ordinance from the agenda and to revisit the issue this summer after the Texas Legislature defines "blighted." Southwest city Rep. Beto O'Rourke abstained from the vote and the discussion.

Though Cook proposed the ordinance, he wasn't the council member at the center of the heated debate.

Eastridge/Mid-Valley city Rep. Steve Ortega was accused by Northeast city Rep. Melina Castro, East-Valley city Rep. Eddie Holguin and three citizens who regularly attend the council meetings of acting unprofessionally because during the discussion of the proposed ordinance he asked Rosenbaum several questions - including whether any illegal activity, such as the selling of stolen items, occurs at a Downtown swap meet Rosenbaum owns.

Before Rosenbaum could answer, Castro told Ortega that if he wanted to talk about illegal activity, he should focus on the "illegal activity" occurring on the 10th floor of City Hall, which contains the offices of the mayor and council members. Castro did not elaborate on the alleged illegal activity, but she said it was linked to "special-interest" groups. Responding to Castro, Ortega told her to call the FBI to report the alleged illegal activity.

After the meeting, Ortega said he wasn't out of line during the discussion. He said he was "passionate" because he wanted to see the community move forward.

Before the vote was taken, Cook told the council that though he proposed the ordinance in good faith, he was OK with deleting it from the agenda if the council also deleted Castro's proposed ordinance on the same issue. Her ordinance is expected to be discussed at next week's council meeting.

Castro's proposed ordinance would include a definition for "blighted" that was recommended by the Land Grab Opponents of El Paso.

Rosenbaum said the definition is based on one taken from the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit libertarian public-interest law firm.

West-Central city Rep. Susie Byrd said she would not consider Castro's proposed ordinance because she didn't want the opponents of the Downtown redevelopment plan to define "blighted."

"They shouldn't be defining blight, because they caused blight," Byrd said.

Rosenbaum said Byrd shouldn't accuse opponents of the Downtown plan of causing blight when the council can't even decide what blight is without help from state legislators.

El Paso TX Times: http://www.elpasotimes.com