Streetcar opponents won the battle to stop the inner city transit project last week, but city officials are rejecting the larger effort to place a City Charter amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that if approved would fundamentally change the way the city is governed.
City Clerk Leticia Vacek and City Attorney Robbie Greenblum briefed Council members Wednesday, saying streetcar opponents failed to meet legal standards and fell nearly 8,000 signatures short in their petition drive to force a charter amendment on to the November ballot.
Greenblum cited several legal authorities in support of his opinion that petition organizers failed to adhere to legal standards when they did not include signed affidavits by petition circulators to signature pages as required by election code and city ordinance. Many of the signatures apparently were gathered by mail and were not subject to verification of any kind. Others were rejected because they were duplicates, did not match voter registration rolls, or were individuals living outside of San Antonio.
“Based on the City Attorney’s Opinion the petition is invalid with only 12,138 signatures,” Vacek told Council, well short of the minimum 20,000 required by state law. Vacek and Greenblum, in effect, ruled that an additional 8,861 signatures otherwise validated, could not be counted because they could not be verified with signed circulator affidavits. Had they ruled otherwise, opponents would have 20,999 signatures, more than enough to meet the test.
Comments made by individual Council members after the staff presentation indicate Mayor Ivy Taylor and a Council majority will withdraw support for streetcar funding Thursday and support a public vote on any future streetcar initiative. T he three suburban Council members, Joe Krier, Mike Gallagher and Ron Nirenberg, disagreed with city staff and said that citizens have the right to petition their government in a democracy and the signature drive should be honored – even if did not follow the letter of the law.
Two Council seats, Districts 2 and 7, are temporarily vacant.
Mayor Taylor, Council members Rey Saldaña, Diego Bernal and Rebecca Viagran support the staff finding and said any changes to the City Charter should come only through procedures that meet an exacting legal standard. District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales was noncommittal. District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez seemed undecided as he spoke.
“We can’t set a low bar for changing our City Charter because that is the way we govern the city,” Mayor Taylor said. “With that in mind I would err on the side of caution” and support the staff position. “I believe we have been responsive through the action on the Council agenda tomorrow, which will essentially rescind the funding for the (streetcar) project, and other partners are doing the same.”
District 4 Councilman Saldaña agreed. “In essence we would be creating a ‘new normal’ on how you change the city charter … you would be governing by referendum,” Saldaña said.
District 1 Councilman Bernal agreed and pointed out he has a unique perspective on petition drives among his colleagues.
“There’s a group of people over here that I know very well from my own experience with them gathering signatures against me,” he said, recalling unsuccessful efforts to force a recall election after Bernal first introduced what is now the City’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Bernal said the debate was no longer about streetcars.
“What we’re talking about now is what it takes to amend our Charter, and part of our responsibility is to defend it,” he said.
District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher disagreed.
“Over 20,000 of our citizens have spoken and we would be foolish to ignore them,” he said. “We have to put this to the voters. To do anything less would not be doing our jobs.”
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier agreed.
“I want to thank you, Mayor, for your words about public trust in your speech yesterday,” he said. “I share Mike Gallagher’s view that when 26,000 people sign a petition we are honor bound” to place the issue on the ballot.
Streetcar opponents were in Council chambers and left after the presentation. Some have said they might seek a court order overriding the city attorney’s legal opinion.