A divided City Council passed a far-reaching ordinance Thursday that rescinds its $32 million commitment to VIA Metropolitan Transit‘s streetcar project, gives voters a say in any future rail projects, and creates a Charter Review Commission that will consider proposed changes for the May 2015 ballot.
San Antonio voters already are scheduled to go to the polls in May to elect a full-term mayor. They also could be voting on several proposed amendments to the City Charter, the 1950s-era guiding document for City governance. Among the key issues the Commission will consider putting before voters: whether to pay the mayor and Council members a professional salary; how to elect an interim mayor in the event of any future in-term vacancies; and whether to give voters a final say on any future multimodal transportation projects receiving City funding.
The new ordinance did not pass without drama and debate. With two Council seats temporarily vacant, the mayor and eight remaining Council members first voted 5-4 to oppose an amended version of the ordinance that would have accepted the anti-streetcar coalition’s petition drive and placed the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Supporters of the amended version argued that citizens have a right to petition government and their grass-roots efforts should be honored with a vote on the next available ballot even if the majority of the signatures they gathered were subject to legal challenge. Opponents sided with City Attorney Robbie Greenblum and City Clerk Leticia Vacek, who found that only 12,138 of the 28,556 signatures gathered in the petition drive met the legal test, well short of the minimum 20,000 votes necessary, and therefore the City was not required to place the proposed charter amendment on the November ballot.
The amended version was proposed by District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, and supported by District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, and District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez. After the measure failed, the council took a second vote on a motion by District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales to support the staff-recommended ordinance without amendment.
That motion passed 7-2 as Nirenberg and Lopez joined the five-vote majority that had shot down the amended ordinance: Gonzales, Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña.
Passionate arguments were made from the Council dais in support of the ordinance and the amended ordinance, but for such a long-running and contentious issue, more seats were empty than filled in Council chambers and only a handful of petition supporters were on hand or signed up to speak, along with the usual City Hall gadflies who take a turn at the public microphone at every opportunity.
Council members on both sides of the petition debate expressed issue fatigue and a desire to move on to three other major issues facing the Council. Those include the 2015 Proposed Budget, presented after the ordinance debate by City Manager Sheryl Sculley; everyone’s expressed desire to see collective bargaining talks reopen with the police union and get started with the firefighters union; and consideration of a multi-billion dollar water purchase agreement SAWS is currently negotiating with Vista Ridge, a private consortium of San Antonio and Austin investors partnered with the Spanish energy giant Abengoa in a bid to pump and pipeline 50,000 acre-feet to San Antonio from an aquifer in Burleson County, 100 miles northeast of here.
“We have an opportunity here to step back from a divisive issue,” Mayor Taylor said before the vote. “The staff recommendation here on the table will give the people a vote.
“We’ve heard your voices,” she said. “Once we take this action the funding will be redirected … and we will continue our commitment to the inner city.”
The City’s $32 million contribution was a relatively modest one since it would have been paid out over a 20-year period from voter-approved bond funds, and thus there is no existing $32 million in General Fund monies up for grabs. Not spending the money on streetcars, of course, does free up the sums for alternatives purposes in future budget years.
*Featured/top image: City Council chambers are located in the Municipal Plaza Building at Main Plaza.