City Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball.

A party always sounds like a good idea until it’s time to fine tune the invitation list, especially when everyone knows there’s a party and is waiting to see who makes the cut.

It was like that Thursday as the City Council’s newly formed Comprehensive Planning Committee reviewed staff recommendations for which key stakeholder groups should play a direct role in the process, and which ones can watch from the sidelines.

At issue is membership in one of the 12 focus groups that will constitute the committee’s Comprehensive Plan Advisory Board. Those groups include Economic Development, College/University/Education, Utilities, Housing, Transportation, Development, Environmental, Tourism, Medical, Non-Profit, Military, and Public Health.

Based on input from City Council and its own work, City staff selected 42 different entities to participate in one of the 12 focus groups or sub-committees. A 13th focus area, Government, was assigned seven different government entities.

Add to that pending citizen appointments from each of the 10 council districts and you have one big committee. Yet everyone around the table agreed: It would be easier to make it bigger than it would be to make it smaller. It wasn’t hard to pick entities that will not be happy to be left uninvited.

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg
District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg

Ron Nirenberg, the first-term District 8 Councilmember, was tasked by Mayor Ivy Taylor  in August with chairing the long-term planning effort. His committee includes District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran, and District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal.

“This is an undertaking that the City of San Antonio has never undertaken,” Nirenberg said at the outset of Thursday’s meeting. “It’s a massive undertaking.”

Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan
Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan

John Dugan, the City’s planning and community development director, is someone who has participated in long-term planning projects in other cities. Striking the right balance is a fine line, he suggested. Too many participants and you have many who adopt an onlooker role. Invite too few, he said, and the committee’s findings and recommendations could prove to be a hard sell in the community.

Driving the effort is Mayor Taylor, a planner by training and someone committed to avoiding the kind of community polarization that occurred over the VIA streetcar project.

Referring to the list of 42 recommended participants, Dugan said, “This is an attempt to gain as much buy-in and engagement for all these planning initiatives” without overwhelming the process.

He pointed out that the current City Council is undertaking a comprehensive planning effort that will focus on growth and economic development, a comprehensive transportation initiative, and a comprehensive water quality initiative.

That’s a lot of planning and as more than one person around the table inferred, no one wants to waste their time on initiatives that do not yield actionable results.

District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña.
District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña

“My initial reaction was way too many groups, way, way too many stakeholders to reach a consensus,” said Saldaña. After listening to Dugan, he said, he had changed his mind and was more worried about who was not being included.

Noting the unprecedented Southside growth underway, he proposed adding the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which he noted was under new leadership. The list of 42 included the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce (formerly named the Greater Chamber) and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“If we are going to be broadly inclusive, let’s be completely inclusive,” said Krier.

He noted the important distinction between commercial and residential real estate developers and sellers, and questioned how the committee could proceed without the Greater San Antonio Builders Association and the San Antonio Real Estate Council. He also proposed adding the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

District 9 Councilman Joe Krier
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier

Krier also wondered how the College-University/Education focus group, which includes UTSA, A&M-San Antonio, Alamo Colleges and the Bexar County School Boards Coalition, could not include Trinity University. Then there are the three Catholic universities, though no one mentioned them.

Ultimately, all of the above groups were added to the working list. There also seemed to be consensus to eliminate the Mayor’s Fitness Council and substitute San Antonio Sports (formerly the SA Sports Foundation).

“This is definitely a work in progress, and I will say in respect to balance, that’s really important,” Nirenberg said. “However, we do want to make sure there isn’t duplication.”

Leilah Powell, a senior policy advisor to Mayor Taylor, joined the conversation at that point.

“I’m not sure it matters if we are at 20 or at 60 (members),” Powell said. “The real work will get done on the technical committees” which can include additional entities.

Despite the long list of proposed groups for the advisory board, there are no Eastside or Westside organizations on the list. There are no arts organizations. The Transportation focus group does not include any pedestrian or cycling advocacy groups.

One of San Antonio’s most important long-term goals is to build a city more attractive to Millennials, but there are no Millennial-specific groups, such as LOOP or the Ghost Light Society on the list, and no groups that represent the new technology and startup community. The new Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, formerly Santa Rosa, was left off the list for the Medical focus group, which only includes the University Health System and UT-Health Sciences Center.

“This is not a static list,” Nirenberg said. “The City Council can review this list and come back and add to it.”

The conversation turned briefly to the kinds of citizens council members will nominate for inclusion on the Comprehensive Plan Citizen Committee and a separate Citizen Planning Institute, designed to teach citizen engagement in local government.

Krier worried that the same familiar names would be put forward that would not act independent of their nominating council member’s control rather than “real people.” He said the committee should energize the community the way the City did for the initial SA2020 planning process.

Saldaña, who recently celebrated his 28th birthday, urged his colleagues to nominate more qualified young people.

“If we wish to, we could have both of these committees working before Christmas,” Dugan said. “But we have to have something done ourselves here to keep all those people engaged.”

The committee’s next meeting will be Thursday, Oct. 23.

*Featured/top image: City Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.