Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speak after Council approved new guidelines for public participation. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio City Council on Thursday unanimously approved 10 new guiding principles that establish a baseline for greater transparency and accountability in how the City engages the public and integrates input into policy formation.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) initiated the process last year and worked with City staff to fine-tune the guidelines.

“[This is a] commitment from the council to our community,” Sandoval said. “This is a standard that you can hold us to when we go out and take your input.”

The public has unique information that can improve City governance, she said, and everyone impacted by policies and programs should have an opportunity to participate in policy formation. Click here to download the guiding principles approved Thursday.

In addition to the principles, City staff has developed minimum standards for public participation that will be used by all City departments, said Jeff Coyle, director of Government & Public Affairs. Click here to download a summary of those standards.

While public input meetings play an important role, Coyle said, “they don’t represent the entire community” – just those who have time to attend.

The City will use public meetings to supplement public input rather than serve as its foundation, he said, and will work to deliver opportunities for residents to participate through technology and events rather than only asking them come downtown to City facilities.

SASpeakUp now serves the City’s online and branding hub for public engagement and input efforts across San Antonio, including surveys and event information.

Terry Burns, a member of the local Sierra Club chapter and frequent participant in public meetings, applauded the new guidelines, but pointed out that CPS Energy does not follow procedures that lack the substance of the City’s new guidelines. Board meetings also are not live-streamed, he said.

While the electric and gas utility is publicly owned and Council appoints its board members, Council does not directly govern CPS Energy’s policies. Mayor Ron Nirenberg said it makes sense to live-stream those meetings, adding he would have a conversation with CPS Energy leadership about it.

The guidelines provide an opportunity to gain a more “comprehensive” view of how the public participates in City government, Nirenberg said, instead of tackling the issue on a case-by-case basis.

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which frequently organizes and participates in local advocacy and protests, sent a letter in support of the new guidelines, noting that “We’ve had countless conversations about creating a ‘transparent’ public process, but we have not seen this transparent city government thus far.

“We hope to see this resolution supported by Council as we fully believe our community deserves a respectful part in City Hall.” Click here to download the letter.

The City is looking into cost and logistics of providing free parking or transportation for residents to attend public meetings, Coyle said, as well as live-streaming Council committee, Zoning Commission, and Planning Commission meetings.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) supported the measure, but cautioned against letting public engagement processes interfere with important timelines and deadlines that may impact business decisions.

One of the standards entails providing a two-week minimum public input period. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said some developers have expressed concern that these guidelines could be used to delay projects.

There are a number of concerns about more robust public input, Sandoval acknowledged, including that community members may feel their input isn’t being utilized.

“If we don’t use some input, we have to say … why we couldn’t use the input, and I believe we will gain respect and trust from the community if we’re able to have those tough conversations with them,” she said.

Addressing the concern that implementing the guidelines will cost time and money, Sandoval said it would serve as an impetus for the City and others to better plan ahead to accommodate input. “It’s worth the time, and it’s worth the investment,” she said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com