The weekly City Council meeting was notable for the way it began and the way it ended, with a relatively light agenda that gave officeholders a rare mid-morning recess.
The meeting began, as it always does, with the Invocation, a few moments of ecumenical prayer. Each Thursday a different Council member is given the privilege of introducing a clergy member from his or her district who then comes to the dais and offers a prayer.
Mayor Ivy Taylor had the privilege Thursday and she introduced Imam Omar Adib Shakir, resident imam of Masjid Bilal Ibn Ra’bah, a Muslim community in San Antonio notable for its embrace of the larger community. I first met the Imam in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Imam Shakir is a native-born American from Ohio, and he is an African-American, one who converted from the Baptist faith to the Muslim faith at the tender age of 14. This is a brave man who knows what he believes.
Imam Shakir is also a full-time prison chaplain with the Texas Department of Corrections. He is warm, soft-spoken, personable and eloquent in prayer. Over the years, I have seen him alongside priests, ministers and rabbis at San Fernando Cathedral, and I have seen him deliver the Invocation at the Blessing of the City Officials at the cathedral’s annual Interfaith Initiative.
As I stood with the others in chambers for Imam Shakir’s prayer to our “Almighty Benefactor,” I couldn’t help but feel pride to live in a city where diversity is in our civic DNA and, even in times of ignorance, hysteria and fear across the land, our Mayor and City Council welcomed a black Muslim man to lead people of all faiths in prayer.
And then there was the end of the unusually short City Council session. Mayor Taylor has a way of saying “There’s one more thing,” which I’ve learned is code for a birthday or anniversary or retirement. Not this time.
Thursday morning, the mayor and her colleagues bid farewell to District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez. It was evident that her colleagues didn’t want to see her go.
“I just want to say on behalf of all citizens how much we appreciate your service,” Mayor Taylor said. “You’re obviously very bright and committed. We wish you luck in whatever the future holds for you…and for your baby.”
That last reference to Aguirre-Rodriguez’s growing pregnancy brought laughs and many tender words.
District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, also an appointee, joked that while he and Aguirre-Rodriguez were the “two rookies” who came into office on the same day, he outranked her ever so slightly because he finished his oath of office first.
“I will miss you. Hopefully, we’ll see you again at some point,” Toney said.
That seemed code for what many Council members implied in their remarks: Run, Mari, Run.
“I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself – there’s a tremendous amount of respect for somebody who made such an enormous impact in such a short time,” said District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña. “It’s going to be strange not seeing you coming into the office on the fourth floor, because we loved seeing you.”
One by one, other Council members praised Aguirre-Rodriguez: District 3’s Rebecca Viagran, District 5’s Shirley Gonzalez, District 1’s Diego Bernal, District 10’s Mike Gallagher, District 8’s Ron Nirenberg.
“I learned a ton,” Aguirre-Rodriguez said. “The city is incredibly well run by Sheryl (Sculley) and her team … this is a great city.”
Embattled Councilmember Cris Medina returns next week from a 60-day leave to attend military reserve training. If he hoped the landscape would improve in his absence, he was wrong. Two things happened while he was gone:
One, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus revealed to the Express-News that Medina was the subject of a FBI and SAPD investigation into allegations of financial misconduct. That was both a bombshell and confirmation of what everyone around City Hall suspected after a July email sent anonymously to a wide circle alleged a catalog of unethical and probably illegal financial shenanigans by Medina.
Two, people fell in love with the person the temp agency sent to replace Medina. Aguirre-Rodriguez was such a breath of fresh air, people began to think of her as the Council member, not a stand-in. No one wanted her to leave, except Medina and his inner circle.
Medina has told the Express-News he is coming back to pick up where he left off. He certainly enjoys the presumption of innocence. Medina and his constituents would be better served, however, if he would fight to clear his name out of the limelight. His presence on the Council will be awkward and he will be ineffective. His returning staff, who worked overtime to undermine Aguirre-Rodriguez, and then portrayed themselves as victims when she suspended them, will find themselves equally unwelcome.
If Medina & team truly care about the district and their constituents, they will step aside.
Aguirre-Rodriguez, meanwhile, is about as attractive a Council candidate as you can get. She is a mother about to have a baby. She is young, energetic, smart, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, and focused on the district and its needs. She didn’t spend one minute of her 60 days acting like a caretaker.
A former Racker, her appreciation of technology was particularly welcome on a Council that has been slow to embrace the opportunities technology offers local government to better engage its citizens. San Antonio is still a paper-driven culture.
Aguirre-Rodriguez surely hoped, privately, that Medina would resign his office, and clear the way to let her seek a more permanent opportunity. If it’s any consolation, the warm words of farewell from Mayor Taylor and a Council majority suggest everyone else joined her in that unfulfilled wish.
San Antonio’s City Council has enjoyed a long run of public confidence that goes back to the election of Mayor Phil Hardberger and a new era ushered in with his hiring of City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
That goodwill is now threatened by events surrounding Medina. If for no other reason, I hope Medina is cleared to avoid a return to the days when citizens lacked confidence in elected officials and actually seemed to enjoy not paying them for their work.
Even if Medina is cleared, I hope Aguirre-Rodriguez seeks to unseat him in the May city elections. Medina, of course, has been absent these last 60 days. Were he present with the rest of us, he would have seen firsthand how important and refreshing it is to have a strong Council member representing District 7.
*Featured/top image: Outgoing District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez cuts her farewell (but not goodbye) cake with Mayor Ivy Taylor. Photo by Robert Rivard.