City Council will consider Thursday exemptions to rules that prohibit Council members from using public dollars for certain events during election season. The rules were established in 2013 to prevent elected officials from using community-funded events as campaign rallies, but some Council members say they need to be loosened in order to avoid postponing events that benefit the community.

The new rules would allow a Council district to fund a wellness, arts, cultural, or heritage event as long as it is “non-branded” – meaning the Council member’s name, likeness, or logo can’t appear on event materials or at the event, said Chris Callanen, assistant to City Council. A moratorium currently exists on such events from the first day of candidate filing until election results are officially canvassed.

“What happens now when the moratorium is in effect – effectively everything is shut off,” Callanen told members of the Council’s Governance Committee on Wednesday. “Agencies that are requesting [these funds] either have to cancel their event, reschedule them, work around the moratorium, or seek alternative funding sources.”

The five-member committee, which meets monthly, is chaired by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and includes Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). The full City Council is slated to approve the changes tomorrow.

“I think it’s a very reasonable exemption,” Nirenberg said. “I’d be supportive of it.”

City Council members each receive about $50,000 per year in their City Council Project Fund (CCPF) for events and other programs that promote economic and physical wellness in their districts. If they don’t spend this discretionary account, they can carry over a maximum of $10,000 to the next year.

Saldaña and Viagran suggested that Council consider lifting the moratorium for certain events.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The City Council Office took over this fund to prevent Council members from “using the funds for events that too closely looked like campaign [or promotional] events,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report.

However, 5Ks and other wellness events associated with the citywide initiative Fit Family Challenge, for instance, suffer as a result, Saldaña said. “Some areas or districts simply don’t do the event some years because we would have to fundraise for them.”

The beneficiaries of this funding should be the community members and organizations, Viagran told her colleagues, regardless of whether events are scheduled during a political moratorium.

According to a 2013 column in the San Antonio Express-News: “For years, this source of discretionary spending was known as the Human Development Services Fund and was so loosely monitored that, in one infamous case, a council member used it to rent animals for a petting zoo at a community festival.”

Updates made to the funding policy in 2013 specifically prohibit the “rental or purchase of animals, alcohol, and amusement rides.” It also added a provision that requires a full City Council vote on allocations of $10,000 or more for a single project.

The next election-year moratorium starts on Jan. 19, 2019.

City staff also is preparing a comprehensive guide for CCPF operating procedures, Callanen said, that will help clarify the policies for Council members and for “the general public to utilize as well when they’re applying for CCPF.”

The Governance Committee also heard from San Antonio Police Chief William McManus on new Good Samaritan laws that would provide a defense for residents who take “necessary and prudent action” to protect children and pets from dangerous situations such as being left in a motor vehicle or in extreme weather.

The State Legislature failed to pass a similar law, House Bill 401, last session that would have waived criminal charges for Good Samaritans who break windows of vehicles to save pets in hot or cold cars.

“I’m not trying to create a vigilante environment,” Brockhouse told his colleagues Wednesday, but people who use their better judgement to sacrifice a window for a life should not be punished.

SAPD responded to 764 calls related to children locked in vehicles in 2017, McManus said, and the department has received about the same number of calls so far this year.

The City’s Animal Care Services receives about 30 calls per year about animals left alone in a vehicle.

“I would be supportive of any such bill that provided protection for animals” in these situations, McManus said, adding that the City Attorney’s Office is reviewing state law and other cities’ policies regarding Good Samaritans.

The committee voted for a more in-depth discussion to take place next month by the Public Safety Committee, of which Brockhouse is a member.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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