Council Decorum Slips as Members Vote to Approve City Hall Renovations

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City Council's A Session convenes for the first time after their month-long break in July.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

City Council members gather in Council chambers.

With a 8-3 vote, the San Antonio City Council approved a $38 million renovation for City Hall on Thursday after a series of tiffs, stifled laughter, and other atypical behavior on the dais.

After City staff members presented details of the logistics and finances of what they called a "critical" upgrade to the almost 130-year-old facility – which most Council members agreed was needed – each council member, as usual, asked follow-up questions.

It's not unusual for Council members to address and respond to each other – when it's their turn to speak. However, as Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) questioned Mike Frisbie, director of the City's Transportation and Capital Improvements department, about the cost of the new accessibility ramp for the building's front door, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) attempted to chime in to provide more context. Treviño led a design competition with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects last year that produced a ramp and entrance design that was approved Thursday. Frisbie asked him to weigh in because of the Councilman's experience with that aspect of the project.

As Treviño started and stopped speaking, Viagran repeatedly directed Frisbie to answer her questions instead.

"[Frisbie] can answer the question for me," she told Treviño firmly.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Greg Brockhouse (D6), who often diverge from the rest of the Council when voting on big-ticket items, told their colleagues that they heard from constituents concerned about the renovation project's cost. Perry and Brockhouse said they'd rather see the renovation project on the next bond program, which is five years away.

As Mayor Ron Nirenberg re-stated that Perry's motion was seconded by Brockhouse to delay the vote for five years, he struggled to suppress a laugh.

It is out of character for Nirenberg, or any mayor or Council member, to laugh at a colleague's motion.

"This, to me, is not a laughing matter," Perry said later.

Councilman John Courage (D9) voted against delaying the vote and then against the renovation, but did not speak during the meeting. Typically, each Council member weighs in on contested topics such as this, especially if they disagree.

These three out-of-the-ordinary interactions did not go unnoticed by Council staff members on Thursday. Two weeks of tense political conversations surrounding whether San Antonio should submit a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention could have contributed to Thursday's departures from decorum, two different staffers suggested.

Viagran told the Rivard Report after the meeting that she is in no way against equal access to the front doors of City Hall.

"It’s about the design competitions," she said. "We go through these design competitions, but when people are designing their great designs … there’s not a budget incorporated with that."

She said that she stopped Treviño because she had the floor at the time and wanted Frisbie, as a City staff member, to respond to her questions.

"I wanted him to give me the answer, not necessarily a male colleague explaining [things] to me,” Viagran said.

Citizens work together to carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Two men carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall, which will undergo a major renovation starting in August 2018.

While Nirenberg disagrees with Perry's desire to have the City Hall renovation project delayed, he said after the meeting that he does not find it laughable.

“I agree with Clayton – it is no laughing matter," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. "And the momentary levity was not directed at Clayton [Perry] – it was imagining a City Hall that has a preserved, pristine first floor and a crumbling second through fifth floors. And as I was vocalizing the motion to delay the item for five years, levity struck."

Some have suggested renovating the first floor of the building, turning it into a museum, and moving the more than 150 City employees into the current Frost Bank tower – which the City purchased as part of a land and property swap with Frost and Weston Urban that allowed the new Frost Tower to be built downtown.

“But it is no laughing matter," Nirenberg continued. "This is the center of the people’s government of San Antonio, which we are celebrating 300 years of, and we have a responsibility to do it in a thoughtful way.”

Talks about City Hall renovations have been in the works for more than two years, and the matter has been discussed at several public council meetings.

Perry, who suggested during a briefing on the project in October 2017 that the building be restored to its original three-story design, questioned the use of certificates of obligation, or non-voter-approved debt, to finance the project.  Voters overwhelmingly approved $850 million in capital projects for the 2017-2022 Municipal Bond, he said, but didn't have a say in a nearly $40 million project.

"This was part of the debt plan in the adopted budget," City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, and therefore was part of the public budgeting process.

Other options, such as moving into the current Frost tower or building a new City Hall, would be more expensive than renovation, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

Though he refrained from making public comments during the meeting, Courage explained that he, like Brockhouse and Perry, had concerns about public engagement.

"I just felt for a project of this magnitude we should have done more to educate the public on why there was such a high price tag," Courage said via text. "Ultimately I didn't think there was enough public input."

With Council approval, work can now continue on setting up temporary buildings nearby to house the offices of the city clerk, mayor, city manager, and city attorney, Houston said. Council members and their staff will be moved to the second floor of Plaza de Armas, which is located behind City Hall. Renovations are slated for completion in February 2020.

Thursday's vote awarded local firm Guido Brothers Construction $30 million to execute interior demolition, replacement of utility infrastructure, and more. Construction will start this summer after building occupants move out in July. Administrative, moving, and inspection costs for the project will be $8 million.


9 thoughts on “Council Decorum Slips as Members Vote to Approve City Hall Renovations

  1. Greg Brockhouse is a joke. He obviously dislikes anything to improve the city. I’m no political expert but he seems like an arrogant and angry on most TV interviews. This is soley my opinion. I’m sure he is eager to be Mayor.

  2. Brockhouse has proven time after time – he’s the assassin of ANYTHING new, different, creative, worthy,”of Democratic origin” – or costing more than $1.50.

    • I so agree with your comments. The “Brockhouse/Perry Team” is automatically going to oppose any improvements in our city no matter how necessary. This is getting old..

  3. Seems like the council needs to purchase a talking-stick, as well….

    I also propose term-limited supplies of free in-session chill pills, and reduced-priced (hey, we’re paying them professional salaries now!) margaritas for Saturday evening bull sessions and family get-togethers. Then, they can yell, cajole, laugh, and cry with each other outside of public sessions while, hopefully, gelling more as a team (Councilmen Brockhouse and Perry , for y’all I prescribe double dosages of both)

  4. I remember when the competition was taking place. What I do not know is were bids taken on the design that won? Often projects have to be “value engineered”. I am in total agreement about renovations and maintenance of City Hall. However, more information about the final number would be most helpful.
    In terms of the Council’s behaviour, it starts at the top and trickles down. I am totally disgusted with their behaviour, and their political motives even more so.
    I am happy there are a few dissenters, they might have a chance of keeping things honest.

  5. I commented at Citizens to be Heard that interesting to observe group interaction between 1 & 10. Anyway, the financial instrument to move forward on this was issuance of Certificate of Obligation, which requires City Council vote; no need for presenting to Public via city wide bond. Wonder if they can use this CofO for other needs in the Community?

  6. Councilman Brockhouse should just change his name to Councilman NO and be done with it.
    He is only interested in keeping his name in print for his unsuccessful bid to be Mayor in the next election.

    Suggestion to him: DO SOMETHING?

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