Mayor Ivy Taylor delivered her first speech since taking office Tuesday at a North Chamber of Commerce luncheon that drew a sold-out crowd to the Westin Riverwalk to hear her vision for the next 300 days.
“Okay, it’s just been two weeks and I’ve had to address streetcars, charter changes, storm water fees, and continuing negotiations on the police and fire contracts,” Mayor Taylor said as audience members laughed in appreciation of the political tumult she inherited as the city’s first-ever elected interim mayor. “It seems like it’s been a lot longer than two weeks.”
The new mayor then went on to make a few more headlines, calling for a moratorium on the debate over raising developer impact fees in the suburbs and placing City Charter reform on the May 2015 ballot when the city will elect a new, full-term mayor. She renewed her call for a new comprehensive master plan to guide the city in the coming years, and promised a more inclusive government at City Hall, announcing plans to create three new entities: a Citizen’s Leadership Academy, a Community Advisory Board and a Council Committee with still-undefined parameters.
Taylor was greeted with a standing ovation after being introduced as the first African-American mayor in the city’s history. For many in the audience unfamiliar with the former inner city District 2 Councilwoman, they saw and heard a confident, polished speaker unafraid to go off script with a humorous aside and a big smile. If there any opening act nerves, they were not evident.
Taylor delivered a well-organized picture of her agenda for the next 10 months, one that reinforced her public remarks that she would not be a caretaker mayor merely serving out the last year of former Mayor Julian Castro’s third term. Instead she intends to use her time to address major issues already on the City’s table with a new, more planning intensive approach.
Most of the City Council members were present at the Tuesday luncheon, and Taylor asked each of them to stand and be acknowledged. She also singled out Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his wife, Tracy, who has now raised about $1 million in contributions for the county’s Biblio Tech digital library.
Later in the program, Taylor spoke about the City’s renewed AAA bond and credit rating for the fifth consecutive year and singled out City Manager Sheryl Sculley for effusive praise.
“Sheryl Sculley is worth her weight in gold,” Taylor said, referring to the $6.7 million the City saved in last week’s bond sale and refinancing thanks to low-interest rates afforded to San Antonio, the only city of more than one million people in the country with the Triple A rating.
“You know that in the next 300 days I am not going to remake the city of San Antonio,” Taylor said. “I am going to focus on a few priorities, many of them already in the spotlight. I was trained as a planner, so I approach issues methodically, gathering as much information and as many opinions as I can, weighing all viewpoints.”
In the wake of the decision by the mayor and City Council to withdraw their support for VIA Metropolitan Transit’s streetcar project, which is still subject to a vote, Taylor probably scored points with her audience and the public by describing her management style as one of listening to the public and reaching consensus with Council members.
“I take seriously the responsibility of being a public servant, listening to constituents, and trying to craft policies that improve people’s lives and make decisions that benefit our community,” Taylor said. “I feel the same way about my colleagues on the City Council. I welcome their advice and counsel and look forward to arriving at collective decisions.”
Taylor was refreshingly candid in telling the audience she feels free to act as mayor without political constraints.
“Because I don’t need to run for office this year I have freedom that elected officials rarely enjoy, the ability to speak my mind,” Taylor said to laughter, “So let me list a few problems we are facing: education, economic development, transportation, public health and healthcare, urban vitality, charter reform, infrastructure, and water. If I were more of a politician I’d refer to these as challenges or opportunities rather than problems, but problems they are.”
Such problems may cause some in San Antonio to think the City is not moving forward, she said, but, “Take the long view of San Antonio’s history and I think you’ll see just the opposite, and one thing you’ll learn about me is that I love history.”
She went on to talk about a city without safe drinking water in the 19th century, a downtown San Antonio in the 1920s where dozens died from uncontrolled floodwaters, and schools where Mexican-Americans were punished for speaking Spanish in school during much of the 20th century.
“Things are getting better, not just in San Antonio, but in the United States of America – I say this as an African-American woman who is mayor of the seventh largest city in the U.S.,” Taylor said. “My mother couldn’t even have dreamed such a thing when she was growing up in the 1950s.”
Taylor’s speech also was a call for unity in the city that increasingly has seen growing North-South friction as suburban residents have fought to limit downtown investment projects. She even repeated a word – “scapegoating” – used by Castro in his farewell speech at a Centro San Antonio luncheon to warn people of the divisive message of streetcar opponents and those opposing downtown redevelopment and investment.
“We can’t afford this kind of stereotyping and scapegoating,” Taylor said. “We need all San Antonians to be in the game.”
She cited several successful projects that have drawn stronger citywide support in recent years: the San Antonio River Improvement Project, Hemisfair redevelopment, and the park and greenway projects driven by previous mayors and Councils.
Taylor envisions citywide support for her call to craft a comprehensive master plan for city growth and development and a parallel comprehensive master plan for transportation that can be taken to voters and implemented without continuing political strife. It’s a tall order and one many do not believe can be accomplished in the short time Taylor will be in office. But it can be started.
“I have already started by calling a halt to further investment in the divisive downtown streetcar proposal, which had come to symbolize to many an out-of-touch government and wasteful spending,” Taylor said. “Streetcars had become just a proxy in larger battles, whether those are about our spending priorities, transparency in government, or even union negotiations.
“Let me be clear: I support dense urban development and better mass transit, but we can’t make such a far-reaching investment just because government dollars were available or everyone else is doing it,” Taylor continued. “We must make these decisions in the context of a larger plan, the first-ever comprehensive plan for our city.”
Taylor said she had asked Sculley to “indefinitely postpone the new storm water fee schedule. Again, this is an issue that cannot be addressed in isolation. Drainage, impervious cover requirements and who pays for our growth – these concerns cannot be addressed in a piecemeal fashion.”
The mayor said she had attended her first SAWS board meeting Tuesday morning, and SAWS trustees and senior staff were in the luncheon audience.
“Ensuring access to abundant and affordable water supply is key to our economic viability as a city, and therefore I will be closely involved in those discussions,” she said.
SAWS is currently negotiating a long-term contract with Vista Ridge, a private partnership, for delivery and sale of water from Burleson County 100 miles northeast of San Antonio that would augment San Antonio’s water supply by as much as 50,000 acre-feet a year. The future price of that water as well as desalinated water that will come from a SAWS plant now under construction in southern Bexar County will cost far more than ratepayers are accustomed to paying for water pumped from the Edwards Aquifer.
Taylor said comprehensive planning has brought new levels of investment in the city’s Eastside, and she wants to see the same approach brought to all city planning and its coordination with other major entities, such as CPS Energy, SAWS, Bexar County, and the San Antonio River Authority.
Taylor repeatedly returned to the theme of comprehensive planning and reorganizing City Hall efforts to address major issues in concert with out government entities.
She spoke about organizing a City-County health summit with Judge Wolff to address the city’s well-documented problems with obesity and diabetes, and the city’s recent efforts to begin building a more livable city with greater recreational opportunities.
“And it’s not just trendy downtowners who ought to have a neighborhood deli,” Taylor said. “Furthermore, economically poorer neighborhoods still struggle with access to health care.”
Taylor was in the minority who opposed passage of the city’s much-debated non-discrimination ordinance in September 2013, but she said Tuesday that she would order a review of the ordinance’s implementation in the next 30 days to ensure it takes effect.
“I commit to you that over the next 300 days, I will be a team leader that seeks input from all and focuses on achieving results,” Taylor said. “I will be calling on everyone in here to play a role in the important work before us.”
Taylor exited to another standing ovation and at least for one luncheon, Northsiders and downtowners happily congregated together as if there were no North-South divisions in the city.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor. Photo by Scott Ball / Rivard Report file photo.
This article was originally published on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.