San Antonio blogger Randy Bear caused quite a stir when the Rivard Report republished his Concerned Citizens posting, San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System. Bear, a familiar voice for progressive issues in the urban core, compared the different approaches being taken by the cities of Austin and San Antonio and concluded that “they” are doing it right and “we” are doing it all wrong.
I think Bear’s voice is an important one to have in the public conversation. He’s one of several writers who contributed regularly to Plaza de Armas before it went on hiatus, someone whose work I followed then and still follow now. We republished him because we believe he merits wider readership.
We published Bear even though I respectfully disagree with him and believe San Antonio will benefit enormously from a streetcar system, assuming we can put together the mix of federal and local funds, and get some of our city’s best thinkers to bless the final routing and future expansion plans. As with any major change, there will be winners and losers along the routes chosen and abandoned, but San Antonio is decades behind the rest of the country when it comes to mass transit, and the sooner we begin to address our problems, with valuable federal assistance, the better.
To do nothing would be a failure in leadership.
Part of the problem is the leadership at VIA. Everyone who knows and has worked with VIA’s president and CEO Jeffrey Arndt sings his praises, but he’s only held the job officially since July. He seems to be the right person for the job long-term, but he could use a little help. The November 2012 departure of his predecessor, Keith Parker, to head up the transit agency in Atlanta — and the months of public speculation that preceded his departure — created a leadership vacuum at VIA, not an ideal environment for pushing a controversial and major new project that carries a $280 million price tag and a budget shortfall of $70 million or more.
Even when Parker was here, he was overshadowed by VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz, whose name is synonymous with controversy and whose resume is rich with both accomplishment and failure. People either love him or loathe him, which makes him the wrong guy to be bringing together a divided community on a complex, multi-year endeavor where public confidence in civic leadership is an essential building block.
The disclosure by the Express-News that Muñoz had acquired property along one of the proposed streetcar lines that could, therefore, appreciate in value, further undermined the chairman’s credibility. The building itself is valued in the $300,000-plus range, which is a lot of money to a lot of people, but it isn’t much in terms of downtown real estate.
Its potential for appreciation is small and thus of no great import to Muñoz. But perception is reality in the world we live, and for Muñoz, it was yet another political setback in his public service record. He has since recused himself from the process, and will not vote on the route. In effect, VIA is without a chairman on the most important project in its contemporary history.
The disclosure embarrassed the streetcar’s driving force and Muñoz’s biggest advocate, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. I’ve never heard Wolff privately utter a critical word about Muñoz and I’ve often heard him defend him, but Wolff’s remarks to the Express-News following the real estate disclosure come as close to a woodshed session as I’ve seen for Muñoz.
I don’t consider myself a member of the “love Muñoz” or “loathe Muñoz” camp. On the up side, he’s charming, personable, urbane, cultured and worldly, and he is second to none as a Democratic Party fundraiser, whether he’s working for a local elected official or the President of the United States. Those skills buy a lot of loyalty, and his intellect and personality make most of those friendships genuine, not merely convenient.
On the downside, Muñoz is an influence peddler, someone who works the margins of the rule book to get the job done. He always seems to be angling behind the scenes when the job calls for transparency, and people are left to believe that he wins work because of his political connections and his appreciation of the quid pro quo rather than the bona fides of his firm and its work. That’s unfortunate, if for no other reason than because he has some excellent professionals in his firm whose work goes unappreciated because of the political filter through which it is assessed.
He has built Kell-Muñoz Architects into a powerhouse firm and its has made him a wealthy man, even though he isn’t an architect. He recently renamed the company Muñoz & Co., a measure of how completely he has consolidated control and ownership there. He has done all this in a city and region where few Hispanics can match his success in competing successfully against bigger, more established Anglo-owned enterprises. Many, however, think Muñoz has done so by playing by his own set of rules.
However much he is appreciated by Wolff, other officeholders and party regulars, Muñoz does not enjoy a high level of public confidence. His troubles date back to scandal from the time he was a state transportation appointee under Gov. Ann Richards, and more recently, in his selection to manage construction projects and bond spending for the San Antonio Independent School District. Then there was the debacle of the short-lived Museo Alameda, where he also overreached as board chair.
Muñoz might get his phone calls to the White House returned, and he might be able to write big checks himself now, but he isn’t the guy to lead the public forward. That’s why he should cut short his final term as VIA chairman by graciously stepping down now. The street car project is too important to let languish. Wolff could thank Muñoz for his service, and then he, Mayor Julián Castro and others would be free to work with the board to appoint a new chairman who can restore public confidence and project momentum.
Coming up, I’ll take a look at the proposed route, and San Antonio’s mistaken “locals versus visitors” mindset. We need both constituencies downtown if San Antonio is going to maintain its momentum and reach its full potential, and we need them all to ride the streetcar.