The City has made it a priority to start planning for the expected one million new citizens migrating to San Antonio by 2040. Efforts to address urban planning, sustainability, and transportation are underway through an effort led by the City and SA2020 called SA Tomorrow.
One important piece seems to be missing — a plan for modernizing our system of representation in local government. Specifically, do we need to increase the size of City Council to ensure democratic representation for all citizens?
Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) thinks we do.
“It would be very important for us to add two districts,” Gallagher said. “We’re right now up to 140,000 constituents per district. … Those districts are larger than most cities in Texas.”
San Antonio’s population has more than doubled since 1970 and the land area of the City has tripled through annexation since the ’40s. Continued populations growth is certain, while geographic growth through annexation has become a hotly debated issue at City Hall and in the communities targeted for annexation.
Regardless of the outcome, San Antonio’s City Council has been 11 seats – the mayor and 10 single-member districts – since 1977 when the city population was around 750,000, a little more than half the current population of 1.4 million people.
By 2040, if population growth projections hold true, we will have more than 240,000 citizens per City Council member.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), who is serving as chairman of the SA Tomorrow initiative, didn’t say whether we should add Council seats, but he did acknowledge that new guidelines might be needed.
“I’m not sure we have a modern process in place for making data-driven changes to the number of seats on City Council,” he said. “Is it something that I would be open to? Certainly.”
The growing gap between citizens and local representatives
Here are a few notable problems with our current citizen-to-council member ratio that could be addressed by increased representation.
Bad service. I sent an email to the 10 City Council members and the Mayor soliciting their thoughts on increasing the number of representatives. Only two responded — Nirenberg and Gallagher. Some council members may have chosen not to respond; it’s more likely that my email was lost in over-crowded in-boxes tended by overworked staff members.
Gallagher alluded to this problem: “If we are going to do our jobs right, what is the number of constituents per council member that can make that possible?”
Poor civic engagement. Attacking the problem of low voter turnout and civic engagement can come in many forms. Moving elections to November, as Nirenberg has proposed and many have discussed, and registering more voters, would be steps in the right direction.
Our elected leaders also need to provide opportunities for more citizens to lead, and that includes more younger professionals and it means officeholders need to reach out to people who might not have worked to help get them elected. Too few people between the ages of 25-35 hold appointed positions on City boards and commissions, even as City leaders constantly talk about attracting and retaining talented young professionals. Why do we hold so few seats at the table if we are so important? More leadership opportunities will encourage citizens to get involved in local government and will bring every citizen in this city closer to their representative.
“A closer connection can lead to better representation, as it breeds greater trust and transparency in the political process,” Nirenberg said. “This in turn, can lead to more civic engagement.”
Potential for corruption. Too much power given to any individual can lead to corruption. Thankfully, this is not a major problem in San Antonio. But it is important to keep our City Council members accountable and in check.
Too many ‘career politicians.’ Another symptom of too much power. We may be encouraging career politicians to chase after open seats. This could lead (and may already have led) to some of our civic leaders using San Antonio to build a name for themselves rather than do what’s best for the City.
Solving the representation gap in San Antonio
Dallas and Philadelphia have 14 and 17 City Council members, respectively, and hold a ratio of about 90,000 citizens per representative. This is a good target for San Antonio.
That means we need four council members added over the next five years, and six more by 2040 to maintain a healthy citizen-to-councilor ratio. This would mean doubling the size of the current City Council.
Nirenberg seems open to change, but offered one potential consequence of increasing the size of City Council.
“The bigger the political body, the slower the political process tends to go,” he said. “In other words, what currently takes a majority of six to pass would require more votes and a greater internal political process to move positive initiatives in the future.”
There’s another complication. New district lines would have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department and comply with the Voting Rights Act, ensuring equal representation for minority voters. Given San Antonio’s sprawl and the growing divide between those who advocate for a revitalized urban core than those who want suburban expansion, the balance of political power would be of keen interest to all parties. On the surface, city elections are non-partisan, but most urban core council members are Democrats at heart and most suburban council members are Republican at heart.
Whether adding City Council members is right or wrong for San Antonio, it is encouraging to see two of our current City Council members willing to join the conversation. A periodic review of our process of local government is vital to maintaining a healthy balance of power and representation in San Antonio.
It took the citizens of San Antonio more than half a century to agree to important City Charter revisions in this year’s city elections. We can’t afford to fall so far behind again. Planning for the future growth of the city implies city leaders also will act on that planning and take the necessary steps to assure local government can and will meet the needs of a San Antonio with as many as 2.5 million people.
*Top image: San Antonio City Council members. Photo by Scott Ball.