City Hall doesn’t keep records the same way the San Antonio Spurs do, so instant recall of stats and facts isn’t so simple. Still, it’s hard to remember a City Council as diverse and promising as the one that posed for a new official photograph Thursday afternoon in chambers. The ceremonial moment came shortly after two vacant councils seats were filled with an African-American man and a Hispanic woman, both nominated on a motion by District 9 Councilman Joe Krier and both elected by unanimous vote.
I don’t remember a City Council with four women members, and you have to go back to 1989-1991 when Mayor Lila Cockrell served her fourth term, in the pre-term limits era, to find another woman who has served as mayor of San Antonio. I thought this might be the first City Council in contemporary times with two African-Americans, but Mayor Ivy Taylor reminded me that Sheila McNeil represented District 2 from 2005-09 and Art Hall represented District 8 from 2003-07, and thus served one term together.
With six Latinos, two African-Americans, and four women, and an interesting contrast of youth and experience among its members, this City Council seems remarkably diverse and reflective of a growing and changing city.
Keith Toney, an educator and Vietnam War veteran with a deep record of community service, was selected by Council to fill the former seat of Mayor Ivy Taylor in District 2, an inner city district defined largely by the historically African-American Eastside and now the center of some of the most dramatic demographic change in the city.
Mari Aguirre Rodriguez, a former staffer with Mayor Phil Hardberger, community relations director for Rackspace, and now a small businesswoman – also with a deep record of community service – was chosen to fill the seat temporarily vacated by District 7 Councilman Cris Medina, who has taken a leave of absence until Oct. 10 to fulfill duties as an Air Force reserve officer.
Aguirre Rodriguez will only serve a two-month term, but political observers say her selection by Council positions her for a future election run. She was not Medina’s choice of candidates to stand in for him during his absence, and there has been speculation around City Hall about Medina’s political viability after a widely distributed anonymous email was circulated in July that alleged ethical misconduct on his part. Medina has denied the allegations.
Toney is expected to run in a special election that will be held on Nov. 4, a race that is expected to draw other viable candidates. The 12 applicants who vied to succeed Taylor in District 2 were particularly strong, and several Council members said any of the three finalists would have made strong temporary appointees.
The session began with all three candidates for both district seats individually addressing the Council and then being invited back up to stand alongside one another and respond to questions. A number of individuals spoke during the Citizens to be Heard segment, a few the usual inane ramblers, but mostly citizens who expressed support for one candidate or another. Council then adjourned into executive session where members reached a verbal agreement on the winners and emerged for the vote in open session.
Read more about the three finalists for each open seat and the 24 applicants who appeared before City Council on Wednesday to seek the appointments: City Council Picks Finalists For Two Openings.
If elected, Toney would have to run a second time in May 9, 2015 when all 10 Council seats and the mayor’s seat will be on the ballot for full, two-year terms. Mayor Taylor has said she will not be a candidate in the mayor’s race.
The full Council will now turn its attention to several looming major issues:
* The 2015 $2.4 billion Proposed Capital and Operating Budget, which was presented to Council last week and is now under discussion at a series of workshops, community meeting and public hearings that will continue through early September. A final vote on the budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, is scheduled for Sept. 18.
* Renewed efforts to reopen collective bargaining talks with the police union, which broke off in early June. Council and City staff also want to open talks with the firefighters union, which have yet to start. Both contracts expire on Sept. 30.
* SAWS is in the final stretch of negotiations with Vista Ridge, a consortium of Abengoa, the Spanish energy conglomerate, and Blue Water Systems, a group of Austin and San Antonio investors. The two sides are negotiating terms for a 30-year, $3 billion contract to deliver 50,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Antonio via a 142-mile pipeline from Burleson County northeast of Austin. If a final contract is agreed upon and approved by the SAWS Board of Trustees in September, it would then come before City Council. SAWS CEO Robert Puente has said the deal would represent a major diversification of San Antonio’s water supply beyond the Edwards Aquifer and other sources by giving the city a new supply of water equal to 20 percent of its current use.
* That diversification, however, will require an estimated 16 percent rate increase, a percentage that could drop by selling some of the excess water supply to area communities and by implementing a new price structure in San Antonio. One suggested price structure would require commercial and residential users irrigating lawns and landscaping with automatic sprinkler systems to pay a higher price for that water if their monthly water usage exceeds a specified median level. The revenues collected from such excess usage could be used to offset the price paid by inner city residents, many of them with limited financial means, who do not have automatic irrigation systems and only consume modest amounts of water each month.
* Mayor Taylor has repeatedly stressed her desire for more strategic long term-planning, and she has announced coming initiatives to produce a new comprehensive master plan and a comprehensive master transportation plan, the latter going before voters for approval.
* Two new City task forces also are in the planning stages. Before resigning his office, Mayor Julián Castro appointed District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal to head a new “task force on diverse and dynamic communities.” The task force would examine ways to manage gentrification so that inner city communities could be renewed with new residents and investment while existing residents would be protected from rising property values and taxes. Members of that task force have not been announced.
* Mayor Taylor, meanwhile, has said she will appoint a task force to explore City Charter reform in time to place the issue on the May 9 ballot. That task force is expected to examine how City Council elects an interim mayor, an event that had not occurred until Castro’s mid-term resignation to join the Obama administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; whether the mayor and Council members should be paid a professional salary; and other updates to the 1951 charter to bring it into the digital age.
* Finally, City staff will make public on Aug. 18 a major downtown real estate proposal put forth by Weston Urban and Frost Bank that would lead to construction of a new Frost Bank corporate headquarters and the city’s first new office tower in 25 years. The complex real estate transaction would be revenue neutral for the city, but could lead to redevelopment of multiple moribund blocks in western downtown north of Main Plaza and City Hall, add hundreds of new residential units and parking spaces to downtown, and allow the City to consolidate many of its employees into the existing Frost Tower, which it would own. The City will give the public and competing developers 60 days starting Aug. 18 to comment on the proposal and to offer counter-proposals.
Featured/top image: (From left) District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, District 2 Councilman Keith Toney, District 1 Councilman Diego M. Bernal, Mayor Taylor, District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, District 7 Councilwoman Mari Aguirre Rodriguez, and District 6 Councilman Rey Lopez. Photo by Robert Rivard.