Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio City Council on Thursday will consider new guidelines to enhance public participation in policy formation, sparked by a request from Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) and backed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Local advocacy groups’ concerns over a lack of engagement regarding a recent update to housing development incentives and tobacco sales rules, Sandoval said, highlight the need for more cohesive, transparent processes when the City collects public input and feedback.
“The City did everything as required … yet the community felt that they were blindsided,” Sandoval told the Rivard Report. “This is something I came into office knowing I wanted to improve upon.”
Council will vote on the Public Participation Guiding Principles, developed by Sandoval’s office and City staff, during its meeting Thursday that starts at 9 a.m. Click here to view a summary of the proposed guidelines on the City’s website.
Sandoval formally kicked off development of those principles in February 2018 with a Council Consideration Request that four other Council members supported.
Though several examples of community frustration with City processes led her to call for a better system, she said, it was a group of especially contentious development projects on the city’s Northwest Side that spurred her to action.
Area residents lacked information about the multifamily housing project proposals, how the process worked, or how to influence it, Sandoval said.
“In the absence of information, you fill in the blanks,” she said, and that often leads to frustration.
San Antonio is expecting exponential growth over the next few decades, so public understanding of how zoning and planning processes work is critical, Sandoval said. “A lot of the decisions that we make today are going to influence the future.”
Effective public participation should be meaningful, transparent, respectful, inclusive accessible, informative, responsive, timely, convenient, and continuous, according to the proposed guidelines, which the Council’s Community Health and Equity Committee unanimously approved at a November meeting.
“Meaningful public participation is the belief that everyone who is affected by something has a right to be part of that process,” Sandoval said.
That wasn’t the case with the recent conversations about development incentives, she said. Stakeholder meetings were held throughout the year, but there weren’t inclusive public forums on the topic.
“The night before [City Council approved the policy], there was a public meeting,” Sandoval said. “When you do it the night before … it’s unlikely to have an impact on the policy that’s adopted.”
This initiative could lead to more significant changes, Sandoval said, by providing a baseline of accountability for how the City goes about collecting and integrating public comments and suggestions. The principles allow the community and the City to “start on the same page.”
Gina Amatangelo, a faculty member of UTSA’s department of public administration, attended a meeting Sandoval’s office hosted last week to get feedback on the proposal.
“Public engagement is inherently challenging,” Amatangelo said, meaning it’s difficult to capture thoughts from a diverse group of people with differing opinions while communicating complex information and establishing trust.
“It’s important to be able to come together and hear from someone with a different viewpoint,” she said, and local government provides a unique opportunity to do that in a safe environment.
“There’s a potential to really build on those efforts,” she said.
Sandoval and Nirenberg also asked City staff to look into providing transportation assistance and/or free parking for those attending public meetings, offering online responses to questions that people bring before Council at citizens to be heard, establishing an advisory committee on public participation, and live-streaming Council committee, zoning and planning commission, and other public board meetings.
“These are billed as public meetings, and if the public can’t see them, then it’s not really true to the spirit of public meetings,” Sandoval said, adding that many community members can’t get off work or find child care to attend these meetings.
Implementing some of the proposal’s ideas, however, would require funding and broad Council support.
The City has been working to improve public engagement for more than a decade, said Jeff Coyle, government and public affairs director. His department is looking into costs associated with setting up video and livestream capabilities in various rooms, similar to the setup that City Council briefing and voting meeting rooms have.
Roughly 500 people watch the Council meetings available online, Coyle said – most of them City employees. However, heightened access could increase use and interest, he added, particularly for neighborhood zoning and project design cases.
“It could just be done from a phone,” he said, “but we have a fairly high production standard.”
Beyond equipment, live-streaming those meetings would likely require staff time, he said. “It will be a budget decision that the Council will have to bless. … We’re open to that.”
The City has expanded engagement at public meetings and in the digital realm, Coyle said. For instance, the City now hosts several public forums on the annual budget, has digitized meeting agendas, added Spanish translation services, and created a centralized department for citywide communications, public records, and social media.
“Public participation is not just a box that we check,” Coyle said.
SASpeakUp initially launched as the public engagement initiative for the budget process. Four years ago, 1,900 people took the budget survey online and in person, he said. This year, 7,800 people participated. Now, SASpeakUp is being used to promote and collect feedback on everything from electric scooter regulations to the selection of the next city manager.
On Monday afternoon, Sandoval joined her Council colleagues at the Henry B. González Convention Center to interview the first batch of applicants for the city manager position.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who led an effort last year to streamline and digitize open-record requests, has said the interviews should be completely public.
Sandoval disagrees in part: The applicants should be allowed to speak candidly with City Council members about the municipal government’s strengths and weaknesses, she said, without fear of retribution from colleagues or the public. However, more of the interview process could be public than it is now, she added.
Once a finalist or finalists are selected, they will take part in a public symposium scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 23. Questions for the symposium are being collected through an SA Speak Up event page here.