Summer Break Over, City Council Returns to Major Challenges

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg approaches the press conference backed by Council members Rey Saldaña (D4) and Roberto Treviño (D1) (right).

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg approaches a press conference in opposition to the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association backed by Council members (left) Rey Saldaña (D4) and Roberto Treviño (D1) (right).

City Council will meet for the first time Wednesday after its traditional summer recess to hear a range of low-interest briefings: a summer internship program, an ordinance requiring owners to provide shade for pets, and various summer parks and recreation programs.

The seemingly soft-ball stuff contrasts with the critical, difficult decisions council members face in the coming months.

The nearly $3 billion budget will include first-time decisions regarding new housing policies and a plan to deal with rising ozone levels. On Thursday, Council will vote to verify that paid sick leave advocates collected enough signatures to win a spot on the November ballot. In the alternative, Council could approve a paid sick leave ordinance to avoid adding yet another local governance issue to a ballot already crowded with controversial local initiatives.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a group of community leaders continue to work on the “Secure San Antonio’s Future” campaign opposing the firefighters union’s three separate ballot measures that have already been verified.

Before the Nov. 6 election, Council is expected to consider whether to un-pause urban core development incentives or modify them to promote affordable housing and a short-term rental ordinance, to name just two. Oh, and dockless scooter regulations might be coming soon.

“This will probably be the toughest 90 days that Council has seen in a very long time,” Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) told the Rivard Report Thursday. “This is a mountain of issues that have come together.”

Though no date has been set for a Council vote, it’s possible that plans for the Alamo redevelopment may soon see the inside of Council chambers, or could be set aside until after the November elections as officials focus on efforts to defeat the firefighter union’s initiatives, which seek to severely limit City Council authority. After more than four years, union leaders still refuse to negotiate a new contract. They instead filed a lawsuit after the City lost its case challenging the legality of the evergreen clause.

Several other issues remain in the planning stage, including the transportation nonprofit Connect SA launched in April to develop a modern multimodal transportation system plan to present to voters.

All this while Council members and some City staff are temporarily displaced in nearby buildings as City Hall undergoes a $38-million, 18-month renovation.

As for Connect SA, Nirenberg said, “we’re not waiting” because of the fire union’s ballot initiatives. “It’s moving forward with thoughtful speed. I would say there’s a lot of kicking beneath the water at this point.”

The mayor said he expects work to continue on both the Alamo redevelopment plan and transportation plans, but those efforts won’t get a lot of “column inches,” so to speak.

“Nothing is being delayed intentionally, but there’s only so much bandwidth the public and Council have to consume these issues,” he added. “There’s only so much room on each Council agenda.”

Starting on Thursday, Aug. 9, when City Manager Sheryl Sculley presents the proposed budget to City Council, several weekly meetings will focus on the budget, developed by staff with community and council feedback. The city’s charter mandates that Council approve a balanced budget by Sept. 31, so the vote is slated for Sept. 13.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially designated Bexar County’s air too polluted to meet its standard for ozone emissions. The “non-attainment” of this standard means costs could increase for new or expanding industrial businesses and transportation projects could take longer.

“I’ve directed my staff to set aside monies [in the budget] to help us develop a non-attainment plan,” Sculley said. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), a climate scientist who chairs the Community Health and Equity Committee, is assisting that effort.

Sculley served as assistant city manager in Phoenix for 16 years before she came to San Antonio, she noted, and Phoenix has a long history of problems with ozone.

“I’ve lived in a nonattainment city and understand what’s needed,” she said. “We’ve been talking about nonattainment since I was recruited to San Antonio.”

There’s a lot of work to do, Sandoval said. “We’ll need to be prepared.”

The Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force is still working on finalizing its report, but it presented its main findings and budget asks to City Council in June. To combat growing housing gaps in San Antonio, the City needs to start allocating $20 million of its budget every year, starting in 2019, task force leaders said.

Sculley recommended a phased-in approach to implement more than 12 recommendations, including relaxed developer regulations, hiring more City staff, and developing a “one-stop” center for housing.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said he might push for a more aggressive first phase, depending on Sculley’s proposal.

“Smart, dedicated folks spent a good portion of a year-and-a-half to give us these recommendations,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is the first thing we typically do with most recommendations – which is ignore them.”

Deregulating development is one task force recommendation Brockhouse agrees with, but for the most part he doesn’t think the City should even be in the housing business. He calls it the “single greatest overreach of government.”

“It’s not a core service of the city,” he said.

During its goal setting session in June, however, a vast majority of Council members disagreed with Brockhouse.

“Streets and sidewalks, housing, and filling police vacancies,” are at the top of the list, Sculley said, “and my [proposed] budget will address those major Council and community priorities.”

This year is looking more “intense” than previous years, she said, but it’s the culmination of a lot of positive and negative initiatives started long ago.

“Compounding it is the fact that we have new Council members this year,” she said. “So it’s a whirlwind of learning but also some pretty intense issues.”

Brockhouse said this “mountain” of work and controversy ahead of Council is a result of poor city management and leadership.

“City Hall’s just kind of rudderless,” he said, laying the blame for the fire union fight at Sculley and Nirenberg’s feet. Brockhouse has plans to run for mayor.

“Both sides [City and fire union] have responsibility in destroying the relationship,” he said. “But it think it’s on the City first and foremost to step forward [for a dialogue] … I think the fire union will come back to the negotiating table if the circumstances were right.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks with members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks with members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

The contract negotiation process has been mired with lawsuits and petitions that each side claims different motives for. Chris Steele, president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, has said the three ballot measures are for and by the people. They would restrict the salary of future city managers, limit the City’s ability to negotiate with the union, and make it easier to get future petitions onto ballots and therefore repeal ordinances. City officials say it’s an obvious attempt to intimidate the City into conceding a better deal at the bargaining table.

On Friday, July 27, the City received the highest bond rating from the three largest rating agencies yet again, but two noted that nine-year streak could be at risk if the measures pass.

“It’s in the black ink in the rating agencies’ letter to us,” Nirenberg said. “If these get passed they will downgrade us.”

The City is required to perform an economic impact study on each  petition, Sculley said, which could be concluded next week. City Attorney Andy Segovia performed an analysis outlining the impact the measures would have on government operations that said “will severely undermine City Council’s ability to consider and implement policy, particularly long-term initiatives,” among other things. Click here to download Segovia’s memo.

“This is happening for no other reason besides Chris Steele wants to have leverage over the next city manager,” Nirenberg said.

It’s a lot to handle all at once, Saldaña said of the agendas ahead, “but I believe we can chew gum and walk at the same time.”

However, developing a much-needed mass transportation plan and redeveloping Alamo Plaza are simply too big to share the stage with the November election, Saldaña said.

“I’d love to tell you that we were working on the biggest problems … but we’re having to play defense [against the fire union],” he said.

10 thoughts on “Summer Break Over, City Council Returns to Major Challenges

  1. Anytime Brockhouse and the fire union appear in the same story, mention should be made of his paid work for the fire union. It may not be a legal conflict but readers should be aware.

  2. Is un-pause the same as resume?

    This is a disheartening piece, for whenever the Politburo is in session no one is safe.

    • The incentives will be “un-paused” and loosened. The phased-in approach to housing Sculley wants naturally includes loosened regulations as a priority. If history is any indicator, Sculley usually sides with the business and developer community. They can count on relaxed regs with her in that job.

  3. We need to end city non-profits , (think El Centro), whose boards are….city council members!! They are an arm of city council, but without proper oversight…and a way to get around things the city charter does not allow the city/council to do. These non-profits are given MILLIONS to spend.

    • Amen Cindy. The city collaborates with and endows 272 local non-profits receiving $120 million annually. Since the City doesn’t earn or work for this money, and can just keep taxing, then there is inclination to save. I have to admit I’d be the same way if my mailbox was stuffed with money every day. That is the root of the problem.

  4. When the clowns at City Council attempt to divide is from the firefighters, you know that they are on the take from the local capitalists.
    We need firefighters far more than Nirenberg, Sculley, et al!
    It’s time to shake up the corruption at City Hall!

  5. hopefully the ozone non-attainment plan includes development and land use policies that serve people and housing rather than cars. the city needs to allow more intensity of development in the inner core to create walkable places and support transit use, if they don’t support more intensity of development (more homes in the core) then they will continue to see the status quo. Building more electric stations for electric vehicles will do nada. Cars are the biggest issue for SA’s ozone non-attainment.

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