San Antonio Needs More City Council Districts

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City staff discuss proposals in the San Antonio Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball.

City Council discusses proposals in the San Antonio Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball.

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.”

District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher sits with District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) sits with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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.

District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.

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. 

Related Stories:

Councilmember Nirenberg Calls for Election Date Change

As Election Nears, City Launches SA Tomorrow Plan

Civic Engagement in San Antonio: Room for Growth, Innovation

#SAvotes…Sorta. What It Means to Have Low Voter Turnout

25 thoughts on “San Antonio Needs More City Council Districts

  1. Paul,

    Your opinion seems to be missing some very important considerations.

    First, I’m not sure most folks don’t realize how many council members city staff has dealt with in just the last 5-7 years? the current churn of councilmembers every few years is hugely inefficient as it is . Each council member has to be brought up to speed on each of the thirty something city departments and their projects, and each injects his/her own priorities. And each department attempts to appease each new council member. The current system is really inefficient with just 11 on council.

    Why are Dallas and Philly the model for SA to follow? You really didn’t make a case for why SA needs to follow their lead? Does their model lead to solving some of the issues you point out with SA’s? is their engagement of young voters higher? Is their system less corruptible and more efficient?

    • My sympathies for city staff. It must be challenging to have to educate and adjust to new city councilmembers as frequently as the staff is required to do.

    • Joey,

      Thanks for the comments and feedback.

      – We could consider giving City Council members 4-year terms. This would alleviate some of the issues with turnover.

      – Dallas and Philly both have higher voter turnouts than SA, although I can’t attribute that to their ratio of constituents-to-reps.

      – The internal processes of how our City departments interface with Council may need to be revised, too. I don’t think limiting representation in the spirit of productivity is a good solution. Should we decrease the number of reps to 8? I don’t think so.

      Still lots more to research and look into before we make any decisions, but I am happy to get this conversation started and see where it goes.

      • I’m not suggesting fewer councilmembers. I’m suggesting there are more pressing issues. If voter turnout is any indication we need way more citizen engagement before we need more councilmembers.

        • I believe more council members would influence more citizens to vote. It’s their job to bring people out to vote… they literally go door-to-door and ask people to vote. Don’t know what other method is more effective or profound.

          Getting more people to vote because someone in a banana suit registered them to vote on campus might look like a win with data, but are we really increasing civic engagement with these tactics? We need people to feel closer to what’s happening and give every citizen personal access to the person that is making decisions on their behalf.

          Love this conversation, though. Thanks you for your comments!

    • Citizens to Be Heard is a joke! And I am considering bringing up solutions to make it more effective. My community is one potential solution.

  2. Interesting topic. Not sure that reducing the ratio of citizens to councilmember will impact/improve the issues raised in the article other than possibly the “bad service” mentioned. Of all elective governing bodies, I have the most faith that decisions are made in the best interests of the electorate by the San Antonio city council.

    • Ken,

      I think more council members would certainly increase civic engagement. More leaders out asking for votes in more targeted districts would bring out more voters and facilitate more communication between citizens and reps. This goes hand-in-hand with level of service and responsiveness.

      I do agree that our City Council does a good job. I am not condemning them. SA is in a period of unprecedented growth and this entire City has handled it well.

      • Regarding “citizens to be heard” I think it would make sense to attach all emails and letters for or against an agenda item so that there is a record of constituents “voices” who are unable to attend the meetings. These emails and letters would be made available to each councilmember prior to them making a vote. Making people who want their voices heard to have to come in person to do so as a matter of record is not a very welcoming or feasible way to hear how constituents feel about a topic. I know of no business who tells their customers that if they want to voice a concern about a product or service that they have to do so in person. City council needs to advance their meetings into the 21st century.

        • I want to see an open forum where we actually get responses from City Council members. This would probably require the use of an online community where people can attach documents, vote on each other’s ideas, and then have City Council come in to comment and close the feedback loop.

  3. Paul, interesting topic, but it’s about 5 years off cycle. Redistricting won’t happen until 2021. Most likely the population will be about 1.7-1.8 million in 2020. That puts SAT at the 170-180K number per district, far above even Houston. Right now HOU is at 137+K per district. Adding three to four districts has been the reasonable target for SAT, with four bringing the city back in line with 125K per district. The bigger question is whether SAT maintains a geo only alignment for council or adopts a geo/at-large approach like HOU.

    Your e-mail example is probably a poor example since it wasn’t really a constituent request. Having worked as a council staffer in D8 before Nirenberg, I can attest that each council district is different in constituent engagement.

    The bigger question will be how the new districts will be carved into the city’s geography. During the last redistricting, D8 actually shrank to allow shifting for the other districts. D5 is surrounded by other districts and depends on give and take to change. Yet it has probably the highest concentration per square mile of constituents. Do the new districts go to the north or do they go in the center?

    Regardless, I think that while the conversation is interesting, it’s a bit premature. 2018 is probably the better time to consider, unless you want to follow the Tom DeLay model of redistricting.

    • Randy,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I know redistricting does happen every 10 years, but there is no formal process at that time to consider adding or subtracting council members. I want Council to not only re-draw lines every 10 years but also expand or contract based on the population and land area.

      I understand the email example may not have been a perfect test. However, if an engaged citizens (not the first time I have contacted all city council members) contacts you about an issue they care about, you think at least some response is warranted.

  4. Interesting article Paul. I believe we don’t spend enough time thinking about structural issues at the local level such as how we vote (I believe there are ways to get “closer to the mean” by allowing us to “rank vote” all the candidates), how we fund campaigns (if you need big business/developers to win), and how we interact with elected/unelected officials (perhaps we need a strong mayoral form of government if “responsiveness” isn’t calibrated correctly under the current structure). Having said all of that, I think one of the interesting points about your question – “do we need to increase the size of City Council to ensure democratic representation for all citizens?” – is how annexation impacts City services and democratic representation. Perhaps some competition between governments would increase perceived or real representation.

    • Marc,

      Interesting ideas and lots to think about here. Annexation is a big consideration and I am mostly against it. Don’t see the benefits of further centralizing an area’s local government. If a small community is not surviving and annexation is the only option, then I would support it.

    • You’re welcome. These are important issues to me. I’m not as concerned about specific problems as much as the process of government and its effectiveness at dealing with anything that might come up.

  5. How about changing the structure of City government to a strong mayor system? Not sure the answer is more politicians. Perhaps it needs to be politicians (who presumably represent the people) with the real power to represent.

    • This is a possiblity, too. I would need to do more research to give my opinion on this, but I do think it is worth considering. Everything should be on the table to improve our local government and get more people involved in the process.

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