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(Originally published on Thursday, June 19, 2014)
The San Antonio City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday setting the framework for a vote later this summer to replace outgoing Mayor Julián Castro, who is expected to be confirmed as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet as the next Secretary of Housing & Urban Development.
The Council’s next vote on the matter won’t be so easy.
City Attorney Robert Greenblum appeared before Council Thursday to walk members through a process without precedent, namely acting on Section 8 of Article 2 in the San Antonio City Charter, which provides for replacement of a mayor leaving office before his or her term expires. That has never happened in the more than half century since the current city charter went into effect in 1952.
Mayor Castro is likely to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to his Cabinet post sometime in July prior to the end-of-July Congressional recess in Washington D.C. That confirmation will trigger the process for the 10 City Council members to select by majority vote one of their own to serve the unexpired term until new elections in May 2015.
The selection of an interim mayor will then create a vacancy on the Council. Greenblum said the usual process will be followed. The City will solicit letters of interest and résumés from prospective candidates who will then be interviewed by the full Council. One person will be elected to fill the seat until a special election can be held in November.
But it’s the selection of the interim mayor that is developing into a political drama unlike anything seen before in San Antonio. Potential candidates on the Council have been testing the political waters since Mayor Castro’s nomination. No clear consensus choice has yet to emerge. Council members are divided on the question of whether the interim mayor should be someone committed to stepping down from that office at the end of the term. An uncomfortable political struggle could play out with all 10 voters sitting in open Council chambers as the process unfolds, and how the process proceeds could affect future dynamics on the post-Castro Council.
“As you all know, we are in a unique and special circumstance right now,” Greenblum told Council members. “The Charter doesn’t provide a lot of language … We want to do this in a fair, transparent and certain, predictable manner.”
That means Council members who want to be the interim mayor will have to declare their candidacy in a letter of interest, and it means the actual voting will be conducted in open session. Each Council member’s vote will be subject to scrutiny by his or her colleagues.
Greenblum said Mayor Castro, once confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would preside over the next scheduled meeting of City Council to elect his successor in an open session. If City Council is in its own traditional July recess, Greenblum said Mayor Castro would call a special meeting to hold the election. The outgoing mayor would not have a vote, and as Greenblum reminded the others, council members can not vote for themselves, although they can abstain from voting.
Council members who want to be considered for the mayor’s seat will be required to file a letter of interest that publicly discloses their candidacy. If no candidate wins six votes in a round of voting, council members will continue with additional rounds. Greenblum said the resolution includes a process for addressing tiebreakers.
Greenblum said there is “flexibility” built into the resolution passed Thursday that goes beyond the bare bones language in the city charter. If council members are unable to agree on election of interim mayor from those who filed letters of interest, a motion could be made and passed allowing other council members to step forward and become candidates for election.
Once an interim mayor is selected by Council, he or she will be sworn in after Mayor Castro submits a formal letter of resignation.
After noting that City Council was bound by the 1952 city charter, Mayor Castro said, “I think this (the resolution) is a good process, one that is transparent … in front of the public so someone can be selected as the next mayor. Of course, I won’t have a role in that other than to preside over the meeting.”
District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher said he wished the city charter would allow a special election and the candidacy of individuals not currently serving on Council. Section 8, Gallagher said, “put pressure on the Council.”
“In essence, when you vote for one you are voting against another and I think that’s a shame,” Gallagher said, adding that he will only support a candidate who agrees to seek the job in the May 2015 election.
“This process is awkward,” said District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, a sentiment shared among her colleagues. She asked if an interim mayor who does not seek the mayor’s seat in the next election could instead return to their Council seat.
Greenblum said an interim mayor would be allowed to seek election to their former Council seat, but would not run as an incumbent and presumably would face the individual elected in the special November election.
“We’d be in the rare position of that person running for City Council while serving as interim mayor of San Antonio,” District 9 City Councilman Joe Krier observed, adding that he agreed with Gallagher that a special election would have been preferable.
Krier cited Article 2, Section 8 as one of several provisions in the city charter that would merit change in a future charter reform election. He asked Greenblum how soon such an election could be called. Greenblum said a city charter election can be called anytime after more than two years have passed since the last city charter election, meaning charter reform could be placed on the November ballot. That is unlikely but it is possible that charter reform will become an issue for debate in 2015, which could include the possibility of placing Council and Mayor’s pay on the ballot.
Interestingly, seven of the 10 Council members did not speak on the matter Thursday before voting on the resolution.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio City Council members (from left) Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña, Rebecca Viagran, Ivy Taylor, Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, and Mike Gallagher in Council chambers. File photo by Iris Dimmick.