New Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai — a longtime civil court judge before he was elected in November — says he’s focused on applying his bench experience to solving problems within the criminal justice system, updating decades-old county technology systems and improving working conditions for county employees.
Sakai is Bexar County’s first new chief executive in more than two decades.
“As a district court judge for nearly 26 years, I was the boss, the person that made the rules. … I told attorneys, ‘Sit down, be quiet;’ I ruled the roost,” Sakai said in an interview with San Antonio Report’s Editor-in-Chief Leigh Munsil at KLRN’s downtown San Antonio studio Thursday. “Commissioners court is obviously a whole different environment.”
Sakai will oversee a rapidly growing county of more than 2 million residents and a government with a $2.9 billion budget.
He replaces longtime Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a dominant force who made major structural changes to county government, such as installing a county manager, in his 21-year tenure.
Sakai said Thursday he also intends to make some structural changes in the role, such as implementing town hall meetings with constituents, updating county technologies like a paper-based court records system, and seeking a better balance of power between the county commissioners. Sakai, a Democrat, oversees a commissioners court made up of three other Democrats and one Republican.
“Perhaps in the Judge Wolff administration, you kind of went to Judge Wolff, and whatever Judge Wolff wanted, things could probably just happen because of the power and the authority that Judge Wolff had,” Sakai said.
“I want to see a shared power among my fellow commissioners,” he added. “They have to do what’s right for their precincts and their constituents.”
For example, when asked whether he supported a downtown baseball stadium to house the minor-league San Antonio Missions, Sakai said he has met with the local team ownership and was very impressed with their case.
However, he added, “I will not speak for my county commissioners, [the owners] will have to do the same presentation for them.” Any decision about using county money for such a project would be made by all the commissioners, Sakai said — as one of his ambitions for the court is to achieve voting unanimity whenever possible.
Sakai also stopped short of promising to support the $60 million to $80 million Link linear park project north of downtown connecting the River Walk to the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, a high priority of Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).
“I’m not going to make a commitment to it until I see the [economic] feasibility study” that should be completed later this year, Sakai said. “Is it still [a] $40 million [project]? Or is it now $80 million? Or is it somewhere in between?”
Sakai, a former judge who oversaw the Children’s Court, was reelected three times in the 225th District Court. While he pushed for technological improvements in his time overseeing the Children’s Court, Sakai explained Thursday that the county’s technology on the whole hadn’t changed much in his 26 years working there.
“I understand when either citizens, vendors, the customers of the county complain, ‘Why aren’t we getting paid on time?’ And I’ve explained, we still use… the same paper system that I did 30 years ago,” Sakai said. “To me that’s unacceptable.”
Sakai said he was also eager to tackle some of the problems plaguing the county’s criminal justice system, especially within the Bexar County Jail.
“That is in my wheelhouse to know about the justice system,” said Sakai, who pointed to major problems at the jail, within the district attorney’s office and the county’s mental health infrastructure.
“The court system must move cases,” Sakai said. “I’m committed to increasing the amount of jury trials get those out, because the jury trials move the system.”
Of the jail, he said he plans to meet directly with the deputies to hear about the problems causing poor morale and staff shortages. Sakai said he also hoped to address some of the jail maintenance issues that deputies have long complained about.
“One of the issues that came up during the campaign was the fact that the there was an issue with locks,” Sakai said. “That’s inexcusable. Why has Bexar County allowed a security issue there?”
As a longtime county employee, Sakai said he hopes one legacy of his tenure will be improved working conditions for county’s roughly 5,000 employees.
“I know most of the employees that work at the Bexar County Courthouse, I know people that are the housekeepers, maintenance, all the way up to the elected officials,” Sakai said.
“If I can get my employees to say, ‘You know what, I love working for Bexar County.’ … That’s the legacy I want,” Sakai said. “That, perhaps, is different from my predecessor, and I respect that.”