Conflict broke out at a City Council meeting Thursday after a councilman’s questioning of a female appointee to the San Antonio Water System board prompted charges of gender bias from two councilwomen and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
The council was to vote on appointing St. Mary’s University water law professor Amy Hardberger and civil engineer Eduardo Parra to the SAWS board and reappointing Amegy Bank CEO David McGee.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) cast the lone “no” vote on the slate of candidates, meaning all three will join the SAWS board effective next month.
Ahead of the vote, Brockhouse questioned Hardberger about how she came to be nominated and her views on impact fees charged to developers.
Brockhouse did not question McGee or Parra during Thursday’s session. Brockhouse said that was because he does not think Hardberger’s stances on water represent his district and because his district doesn’t lie within the territories McGee and Parra would represent at SAWS.
However, a significant portion of Brockhouse’s district falls not only within Hardberger’s southwest district but also inside the boundaries of SAWS’ northwest quadrant, which Parra will represent.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Brockhouse issued at least three press releases challenging Hardberger’s nomination. He said that Nirenberg handpicked the daughter of his political mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, without properly consulting other council members.
Bruce Davidson, Nirenberg’s director of communications, said the mayor spoke with Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), Gonzales, and Sandoval about the appointments, though not Brockhouse.
Brockhouse has repeatedly called Hardberger a “water activist.” He also describes her as qualified for the job because of her position as associate dean at St. Mary’s University School of Law with a long background of writing on water issues and serving on several community boards.
“It’s not that she’s not qualified,” he said during the council meeting. “That’s not it at all. It’s just that the process isn’t qualified.”
Nirenberg should have invited more people in the community to apply to serve on the SAWS board, Brockhouse said, and asked him and other council members for their recommendations on who could best represent their districts.
“And if it ends up being Ms. Hardberger, then it ends up being Ms. Hardberger,” he said. “I’m okay with that.”
After Brockhouse’s questioning of Hardberger, Nirenberg was the first to raise the issue of gender bias at the meeting, asking Brockhouse if he would like to question the male appointees as aggressively as he had Hardberger.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) then said that she felt “particularly offended when one of my colleagues chooses to isolate and target the one woman who is clearly the most qualified.”
Gonzales said she trusted Nirenberg’s nominations and the vetting they received last month at the council’s Governance Committee.
“If there had at any point been a time that there was a question about anybody’s professional experience, it could have been done at a later date and not necessarily on the dais just for the point of show, and I feel particularly offended by that and cannot sit here quietly and observe that,” Gonzales said.
That prompted a sharp exchange between Brockhouse and Gonzales.
“Councilwoman Gonzales, not everything is sexism or racism,” Brockhouse said. “If she’s going to stand up here and – ”
“I’m going to call it when I see it,” Gonzales replied. “I’m not going to sit here quietly and allow you to do it and not respond.”
“I have the floor, ma’am,” Brockhouse said.
“I understand this is out of line, Mayor,” Gonzales said to Nirenberg. “But I cannot sit quietly.”
“Sorry, you can sit quietly while I have the floor, ma’am,” Brockhouse said. “That’s my opportunity. … I had to sit there and listen to your comments, which were way out of line.”
Listen to the discussion in its entirety below:
Brockhouse went on to say that Hardberger “is an accomplished person” but that he doesn’t believe “she best represents the quadrant that she is going to stand for, the residents of District 6.”
After the meeting, Brockhouse called the charge of sexism a “low, malicious attack” used to shut down dissent.
“The problem with these types of attacks is that you can’t defend against them,” he said.
Asked after the meeting if he thought Brockhouse’s remarks were sexist, McGee said no.
“[Hardberger] is an eminently qualified candidate,” McGee said. “People are going to have different opinions on what’s sexist or not. But she’s eminently qualified for the position, and I look forward to working with her.”
The whole thing stemmed from a back-and-forth Brockhouse had with Hardberger in which the councilman appeared to be trying to get Hardberger to acknowledge that Nirenberg selected her without consulting any council members.
“So the mayor asked you to apply for this?” Brockhouse began.
“He did originally,” Hardberger said. “But then I also did reach out to some of, to Councilwoman Sandoval and other offices to see, uh –”
“So that’s interesting,” Brockhouse broke in. “Which council offices did you speak to? You say you reached out to folks, who else did you speak to in the southwest quadrant?”
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“I primarily reached out to Councilwoman Sandoval since I am in her district,” Hardberger said.
“You’re aware there are other districts in the southwest quadrant, so what precluded you from speaking to the other council members?” Brockhouse asked.
Brockhouse and Hardberger went on to debate about who reached out to whom and when. Both say they have never met face-to-face to talk about water issues before.
Gonzales wasn’t the only councilwoman to comment on Brockhouse’s questioning of Hardberger. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) told a story about playing in mariachi bands while growing up, in what she called a “male-dominated world.”
“Even the men admitted to me … that to play mariachi as a woman, you have to be at least twice as good as a man,” Sandoval said. “I apologize, Ms. Hardberger, that that is what is happening up here today on this dais.”
Sandoval went on to point out that Brockhouse was not questioning Parra the way he did Hardberger.
“You have two potential appointees representing your district here,” she said. “Your concern, repeatedly you claimed, was with the process. But I feel that it’s not.”
For her part, Hardberger declined to comment on whether she felt Brockhouse’s remarks showed gender bias.
“I look forward to taking Councilman Brockhouse at his word that he’s willing to work with me,” she said after the council’s vote.