San Antonio City Council meets last month as Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) videoconferences in. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The urgency of the coronavirus pandemic has upended the typical workings of San Antonio’s City Council: Form a committee, collect public input, discuss with colleagues, vote, repeat.

Typical committee meetings and policy discussions have halted, and the weekly “working group” meetings that have replaced them are not open to the public. That has contributed to some Council members feeling left out of the governing process.

“Priority No. 1 is saving lives, priority No. 2 is everything else,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “Right now the mayor and county judge are guided by that. … They’re spending little time worrying about people’s hurt feelings.”

Under the series of emergency orders Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the mayor and the city manager have increased authority to take action in a host of policy areas. That means the City Council doesn’t have to vote on large allocations or reallocations of money and resources – and many decisions don’t have to be discussed publicly. Some officials and government transparency advocates think they can – or should – be livestreamed.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis moment where we need decisive leadership,” Pelaez said, “and the one thing that committees are not known for is quick, nimble, concise leadership.”

Generally, Council members have supported the mayor’s swift action in issuing stay-at-home orders and City Manager Erik Walsh’s decision to freeze hiring and redirect money from the City budget.

During City Council’s meeting Thursday, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) was the only member to vote against extending the order through April 30. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the order, it was more of a symbolic protest for a more comprehensive response to the coronavirus outbreak from the City and more involvement by City Council.

“Council members should be involved in some of these conversations regarding health policy,” Sandoval said. “All of this work is being taken care of through the [incident command team]. … They’re doing a lot of great things, obviously, [and] we can’t see everything that they do – they’re working every day. My conversations with the team has been: Let’s explore these additional things. That’s why I really voted no.”

Many of those concerns and additional actions, however, are already being addressed through joint City-County working groups, and area health authorities are rapidly adapting and updating testing protocols.

“From the first public health emergency order … the intention was to make sure that the public health authority was in the driver’s seat guiding us through this situation, which now is a pandemic response,” Nirenberg said Thursday after the vote on the emergency order. “It’s critically important that the decisions we make are guided by health experts and not by politics.”

To rapidly address needs during the pandemic, Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff established five COVID-19 Community Action working groups on March 30 to act as “strike teams” in different areas: federal and state advocacy, philanthropy, food security and shelter, business and employment, and social services.

“As we work through this global crisis, the immediate urgent needs of our people must take priority, and that means the time and resources of the City and County have been recalibrated to response, relief and – ultimately – recovery,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Wednesday. “Total focus and collective effort is required for us to act swiftly and nimbly. I’m pleased that the City, the County, and the community are coming together in such an unprecedented manner.”

These groups – comprising more than 75 City Council members, Bexar County Commissioners, community leaders, philanthropists, executives from such companies as USAA and Valero, and their staff members – met for the first time last week and will continue to meet weekly. Their video conference calls have not been open to the public or livestreamed. Click here to see a list of each group’s members.

Gordon Hartman, a philanthropist and businessman, was tapped to coordinate the groups, which aim to tie resources to community needs within their focus areas.

One of the first actions taken by a working group came last week when the food and shelter group met and identified the need for a large shelter to quickly house the City’s most vulnerable homeless population. The five members and various staff members worked through the weekend to arrange a deal with an area hotel to serve as the shelter and Monday it was presented to the City’s executive staff.

Council discussed the proposal Tuesday and signaled its support. City Manager Erik Walsh will soon execute the contract, which does not require a Council vote.

“Done,” Hartman said. “That conversation was already happening, but without this working group it could not have gotten done so fast.”

Securing the hotel facility and arranging support services for $2.5 million in federal funds normally would have taken weeks of deliberation, research, and public input, he said. “Now you’re seeing action in hours and days.”

After the working groups were announced early last week, some council members called for more public communication and better coordination among the groups.

“Government transparency and accountability is critical,” Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) said last week. “I don’t want it to look like it’s just a group of folks [making decisions] behind closed doors.”

In the weeks before that, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) had called for holding additional council meetings during the crisis. Council typically meets at least twice per week in addition to committee meetings, but had met once per week since spring break in mid-March.

In response to Garcia’s and other Council members’ concerns, Nirenberg established a weekly videoconference at 2 p.m. Tuesday during which Hartman and other members of working groups will give progress reports.

Gordon Hartman. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the Rivard Report

Tuesday’s meeting was Council’s first completely remote briefing session, conducted online and livestreamed. It will continue weekly for the foreseeable future.

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But Garcia, who serves on the federal and state government advocacy working group, would still like to see more public participation in the working group meetings, which are not livestreamed.

“There’s people out there that are residents, that are nonprofits, or advocacy organizations that have brilliant ideas … or concerns for that matter,” she said. “If they’re not part of the working group, how are they going to contribute?”

She said she is brainstorming ways to collect such input. “We don’t necessarily have a public comment period for working groups,” she said, “but I think it’s important to get feedback.”

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who owns a pawn shop, serves on the business and employment working group. She wants to make sure small businesses aren’t left behind in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“I feel that it’s necessary to be able to be nimble,” she said of City government. “Getting the right balance [of meetings and action] is still going to take some time.”

That’s the balance between transparency and efficiency in municipal government amid the coronavirus pandemic. But bureaucratic processes aimed at transparency can slow government response when dealing with a highly contagious virus.

“[The Tuesday meetings and] working group written reports also will be public, but I don’t anticipate that the working group conversations themselves will be livestreamed,” Nirenberg said via text.

But perhaps they should be, said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

If the working groups are purely an advisory body, “those meetings typically don’t fall under the Open Meetings Act,” Shannon said. But if those groups are creating regulations or making decisions that are essentially rubber-stamped by the government, the meetings should be public.

“That would be very important for the public to understand or to witness,” she said. “It seems like the City of San Antonio has the capacity to have these livestreamed … so why wouldn’t they?”

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended parts of the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow for meetings to be held entirely online and via telephone to encourage social distancing practices.

Though it may not be technically required by law, Shannon added, it’s good practice to provide as much access as possible to meetings, especially in times of crisis, “because the public needs to know the depth of this problem. We need more information than ever to be flowing, not less.”

Because some of these meetings are called at short notice, often to find resources, they may not lend themselves to proper notice and access rules, Hartman said.

On Thursday, Sandoval, a member of the business and employment working group, said the meetings should be made public.

“I think there should be an opportunity for transparency around them and some opportunity for the public to participate or share input,” she said. “… I’ll be looking to do that with my group.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Pelaez said he’s not opposed to opening the working group meetings to livestream if the City has the technological capability, but it’s not a higher priority than saving lives during the pandemic.

“Every single person working on this is a San Antonian,” he said. “All of our children go to schools here, all of us live in neighborhoods here. There is no conspiracy to deny people the opportunity to engage.”

Every state grants cities and counties the power of emergency order because of this kind of situation, Pelaez said.

“This is uncomfortable and so out of the norm that the mayor can declare things to be closed … that’s not what they teach in your social studies class [as how democracy operates],” he said. “This is not normal times. … When things get back to normal, those powers are scaled back.”

Livestreaming the working group meetings may have the unintended consequence of spreading misinformation, Pelaez said, not because the members have bad information but because “information is changing every day.”

But City Council should be able to call for emergency meetings for deeper discussion before large decisions are made, Perry said.

“It’s a balance with everything,” he said. “There are some things that need to be a quick decision … but a lot of these [decisions] don’t have to be made in one day.”

Perry pointed to the mayor’s order to close restaurants and other non-essential businesses last month and golf courses last week.

“Too much of these decisions are being made by one office,” he said, noting that each council member brings a unique and valuable perspective to the table. “We can call an emergency meeting anytime. … We should be reaching out to our communities and getting feedback.”

As the outbreak continues, few protocols or assumptions the City organization is following are set in stone. Almost all data points and rules come with the caveat that San Antonio – and the nation – is dealing with an unprecedented and “evolving situation,” a phrase repeated by almost every City department director and executive.

“It’s a new frontier,” Nirenberg said Thursday. “There’s not a playbook [with comprehensive directions] anywhere in the country for a crisis of this magnitude, but I’m grateful for my colleagues’ input on how to keep their districts safe.”

Regardless, Council members and their staffs are still working to provide information and assistance to their district residents. While their field offices may be closed, Council members said they are still taking calls for assistance with utility bills and fielding other requests.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she and her staff connect residents to various resources on a daily basis, and she’s making note of the gaps and inequities across the city. She hopes this health and economic crisis can at least highlight the need for an improved social safety net for disadvantaged populations.

“Let’s not look at this as the apocalypse, let’s look at this as the revolution,” she said, quoting an image she saw on social media.

Once the coronavirus outbreak subsides, the working groups will continue to manage and evolve throughout the recovery phase, Hartman said.

“We can’t just do this and then high-five and think that everything’s done,” he said. “We’re in the middle of the storm, but when the sun comes out, we’re going to see the damage.”

“The virus is one thing, which is terrible … but the ramifications outside the virus are just as bad, if not in many ways worse.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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