AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The Potter County District Courtroom was at maximum capacity Tuesday morning, filled with the legal team of the city of Amarillo, the legal team for Amarillo Businessman Alex Fairly, along with more than 80 members of the Amarillo community to decide the next step in the Civic Center trial process.
Also in attendance, via video conferencing software, were representatives from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Overseeing the proceedings was William Sowder, a retired 99th District Court Judge from Lubbock.
Altogether in the crowded courtroom, the entities met in open session to determine how the two funding-related lawsuits, one by Fairly and the other by the city itself, could move forward. The hearing was set to be an initial bench trial regarding the recent series of lawsuits involving the city and its strategy for funding its Amarillo Civic Center Complex project.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, Sowder decided to combine two lawsuits into one, both centering around the funding of the expansion and renovations to the complex. However, no other decisions, including the discovery process, the kind of trial or when the trial would occur, were made in open court on Tuesday.
How did we get here?
Fairly filed a lawsuit in Potter County a few days after the Amarillo City Council voted 4-1 on May 24 to approve an ordinance that would allow the city to issue an amount not to exceed $260,525,000 in anticipation notes to help fund the Civic Center project.
In his lawsuit, Fairly’s legal team claimed that the city’s use of anticipation notes for the project was illegal and was going against the will of the voters, after the failure of a bond proposal for the complex in 2020. The city of Amarillo filed its own suit in early June, seeking for a judge to validate the decision to use anticipation notes as a funding mechanism for the project.
What happened during the trial?
During Tuesday’s trial, Paul Trahan, a member of the legal team for the city of Amarillo, requested that an official trial date for this case be set in the near future. Trahan stressed that the matter of the trial needed to be resolved sooner rather than later, saying that the “statute was clear” in this matter. Trahan also said that the statute was clear in that the matter should be decided by a judge, and not by a jury, with the least possible delay.
In the two to three weeks, Trahan said the city would be able to present witnesses and evidence to prove to a judge the validity of the use of the anticipation notes. Trahan cited ongoing inflation as well as the potential for interest rates to increase the longer the situation takes to resolve, costing the taxpayers more money in the process.
While Fairly’s legal team said they did support the consolidation, T Lynn Walden, a member of Fairly’s counsel, said they would not be able to complete their discovery process in two to three weeks. Fairly’s team continued to claim that the city of Amarillo had not produced all the documents warranted in the discovery process.
Walden stressed that his team was entitled to a “larger universe of documents” under their lawsuit, surrounding the alleged violations of the Texas Constitution, as well as the state’s tax code, the Open Meetings Act, the city of Amarillo’s Charter as well as the Texas Government Code. Walden and his team said that they would need at least 120 days to conduct this discovery process prior to a trial.
Further, Fairly’s team requested a jury trial over a bench trial, saying that portions of Fairly’s allegations warrant a decision by a jury more fitting than a judge.
The city of Amarillo’s legal team said that discovery should occur under the parameters of Texas Government Code chapter 1205, claiming that the additional documents Fairly’s team is requesting are not relevant to the overall case. Trahan said that Fairly’s team’s request “greatly exceeds” what is required.
The city of Amarillo’s legal team said that the only thing that is necessary in this case is to look at the ordinance and look at chapter 1431 of the Texas Government Code, the portion that outlines the rules entities have to follow regarding anticipation notes. Officials should compare the two, looking to see if violations of the Texas Constitution did occur.
How did the parties respond?
After Tuesday’s bench trial, Fairly said he feels great about how Tuesday’s proceedings went. While there are still decisions to be made, Fairly said the judge’s thoughtfulness shows how they are approaching the case.
“They agreed to consolidate, which we were in favor of. Then, the judge is going to decide on discovery and how much. Of course, that will affect how long it takes and whether or not we have a jury or a judge,” Fairly said. “…I think it just speaks to how serious (the judge is) taking it. The Attorney General is a party to the case. They’re here. So I think it just speaks to how serious they are taking it.”
In documents filed by the city of Amarillo’s team prior to Tuesday’s bench trial, officials said the issues surrounding when the trial will take place, whether or not it should be in front of a judge or a jury and whether or not “broad discovery” should take place are only to change the City Council’s decision to fund the project using anticipation notes.
“These issues were raised by Alex Fairly who seeks to override the actions of a duly elected City Council to advance a personal agenda he has been vocally promoting and funding for years,” the documents read. “The City urges the Court to respect the decisions of City Council and follow the directives of the Texas legislature in adjudicating this lawsuit as expeditiously as reasonably possible.”
Sowder stressed that he had not made a decision on the discovery process in the consolidated Civic Center funding-related lawsuit. Sowder also said he had not decided on whether or not the trial will be a bench trial or a trial by jury, nor the date. Once those decisions are made, further documents are expected to be filed in the Potter County District Court.
This story is developing. Check with MyHighPlains.com for updates.