Councilwoman Sandoval’s Push for More Transparent, Thoughtful Public Engagement

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Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7).

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7).

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.

20 thoughts on “Councilwoman Sandoval’s Push for More Transparent, Thoughtful Public Engagement

  1. My elected council rep asked for public input ( NextDoor) concerning new city manager. I gladly participated. YOU have to become involved, particularly when given the tools.

  2. This is silly. Consider Tobacco 21. There was plenty of input from business owners. Council members acknowledged that businesses would suffer and responded callously, saying they should find something else to sell, as if they know anything about enterprise. Now, I don’t know how the businesses are faring, but it’s clear the members do what they want to do, no matter what the public has to say. Whatever the costs of their decisions, they do not have to bear them.

    Mentioning the Republican convention will raise hackles, but it is a good example. Again, there was a lot of input from businesses that would have benefited from the event. But meeting in secret, the council said nyet. They did not care. They don’t like Trump, so screw business.

    Interesting that most of the 500 who watch council meetings are city employees. Is that part of their job description? I doubt it. But, it probably takes them away from what they normally view while pretending to work.

    • Hard to sympathize with someone whose business model is to make money selling tobacco and addictive nicotine products to 18-year-old kids. Public health is more important.

      • Okay, but what they are doing is not illegal. There are lots of businesses engaged in conduct that you perhaps find reprehensible, but which is still legal. Are we going to put them out of business because you do not sympathize with what they are doing? PETA would like to put pet shops out of business. Some would say automobile dealers should be closed down because their products kill people. Etc., etc. There is no end to the government’s ability to destroy wealth.

        • You really think the Stop & Robs are going to go out of business if they can’t sell tobacco to those under 21?
          You’re dangerous.

          • What are you, Ice Man? It’s not a question of going out of business, necessarily, but the extent to which they are harmed.

    • Name one, just one, tobacco retailer in SA that closed down their business because of the T21 restrictions?

      You won’t be able to because it didn’t happen.

      At the end of 2020 you also won’t be able to name one business that went belly-up because the RNC didn’t throw their party here.

      If tobacco restrictions and not inviting the RNC convention is the worst council has done to local business, then it seems you’re howling over a papercut.

      • That, of course, misses the point which was that the council pursues its own agenda. Anyway, it is not always a question of whether citizens go bust, but whether they are harmed, or ignored. Businesses on Old Hey 90 overwhelmingly did not want the street renamed, but the council did it anyway. We’re they harmed? Don’t know, but surely they were ignored.

        • well then let’s just do away with Council and have a 400 member “citizens” panel run the City.
          You really are foolish. Council members were elected by their “constituents” (look up what that is), so yes, they have an agenda, and why not. They have more information, can make decisions based on that, and can move the City forward. The constituents have all the input they want, most don’t because this is the laziest city I’ve ever seen. But then they complain after the decisions are made. Too bad.
          And yes, passing on the RNC was a smart decision, I don’t care what the “business community” thinks. Let “them” put up the $20M.

        • Someone wrote, “Are we going to put them out of business because you do not sympathize with what they are doing?”. Hold on. Let me check who wrote that….oh, yeah, you did!

          RNC, Tobacco21, and Hwy 90 are hardly legitimate litmus tests that established this council’s willingness or unwillingness to listen to constituents or their antipathy towards business.

          First, set aside the fact that the Hwy 90 decision was made by a previous council. The T21 decision was celebrated by the largest business groups in the city. The only people that objected were the convenience stores. Not even HEB, Walgreens, WalMart, or the tobacco companies showed up to object.

          The RNC was a down-the-middle decision to not pay $20M of taxpayer money. RNC wasn’t disinvited. They were just told the find their $20M from their members and interested businesses. How that is offensive to anyone objective is hard to understand.

          Citizens who don’t get their way will ALWAYS complain that they were ignore. Sour grapes isn’t the same as ignoring the public.

  3. The draft resolution, the agenda memo, and the legislation notes summarize the concerns. The legislation notes go on to recommend a two-week minimum input period through the existing channels of communication (minding the digital gap) unless special circumstances arise. It appears straight forward.

    File #: 19-1438
    Type: Resolution
    In control: City Council A Session
    On agenda: 1/17/2019
    Posting Language: Resolution adopting guiding principles that enhance public participation in the City of San Antonio. [Carlos Contreras, Assistant City Manager; Jeff Coyle, Director, Government & Public Affairs]

    There is a major difference between the legislation notes and the draft resolution that strips the work done on this altogether.

    The draft resolution does not contain the specific language and measurable schedule deadlines recommended in the legislation notes (two-week minimum). The time period honestly is unimportant; it could be ten business days or a Monday through Sunday calendar week.

    What that language did in the legislation notes was create measurable accountability of a duration the public could participate with their government through various communication channels concerning policy changes. The point of this resolution was to create accountability and restore public trust. By removing this clarifying language, the resolution surreptitiously gives power back to non-elected department staff to decide when, where, and for how long input can be gathered. The resolution will defeat itself if passed, and we will be back to where we started.

    • That may be, but no matter what the deal is, they will do as they please. They care more for virtue signaling than they do about the citizenry.

  4. The most consequential decision has already been made, having major negative consequences, which citizens cannot change unless major changes are adopted. How many citizens have actually looked at, and closely examined, the implications of the city’s long-range plan? Space does not allow me to elaborate. On top of that, the City Mgr. only speaks of “policy direction”, but no actual formal policies which includes metrics, are adopted. This is all a good intention & the right idea, but still will fall short of our needs.

    • Geez, don’t you get it? Our needs, wants, desires, count for nothing. The council members will put into law what they think we have. They don’t care what we think.

  5. The City Council could begin by acting more professional and interested when people are engaging in Citizens to be heard. At present Council members leave the Chambers, get on their cell phones, and put out bored facial expressions.
    Hardly the way to treat the public.

  6. Again Pancho??!! I thought you left.

    Why shouldn’t they have bored facial expressions – most of the nonsense they hear from citizens is drivel.

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