San Antonio City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
City Council could consider changes to the City Charter in August. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

One of the top priorities of Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg is for the City to have a charter amendment election, which could be called as early as November. Aug. 21 is the final day that the City could order a Nov. 7 election.

The last of three public input meetings was held Wednesday night, and the Charter Review Commission will now spend the next six weeks or so diving deep into a range of potential amendments suggested by City Council members and residents.

Those changes include: extending terms of elected office from two to four years, pushing the May municipal election to November, and changing the appointment processes for the Ethics Review Board (ERB) and the Planning Commission. Nirenberg has expressed support for these changes.

But commission members will determine whether it is best to try and meet the November election deadline or hold off until next May.

“I have heard from the mayor-elect, and I think [Nirenberg] wants it done right,” commission Chairman Jeff Webster said at public hearing Wednesday at the Central Library.

Outgoing Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10), an at-large commission member, shared Webster’s feelings: “Should we be really rushing this process or try to have the charter election in May [2018]?”

The mayor-appointed review commission has been working on a schedule, where committees and subcommittees will discuss proposed charter amendments through July.

John Peterek, assistant to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, said the tentative commission schedule could have the commission first presenting potential revisions at a Council B session on Aug. 2.

The Council then could adopt a formal list of revisions and call an election on Aug. 17.

Other possible charter changes include allowing the City, by public vote, to use taxpayer funds directly for affordable housing, and adjusting the process of verifying a mayoral or Council candidate’s residency.

According to Webster, the following commission members will be leading main committees to tackle different topics: John Gilbert, Planning Commission; Frank Garcia, housing bond; former Councilman Art Hall, ERB; and Frank Garza and Francine Romero, issues related to government transparency and elections.

Webster said he wants CRC to have enough time to fully explore the ideas offered by Council members and numerous residents who have attended the commission’s three public hearings.

“(The Council) is going to like some (proposals), they’re going to hate some, and there’s no telling where we’ll end up,” said Webster, a former Council member.

More than 40 people attended Wednesday’s hearing. Many of the attendees repeated previous ideas, or offered variations of those recommendations.

A few such as Lauro DeLeon and Alice Salinas support using City funds directly to develop affordable housing.

DeLeon sat on a committee that shaped the neighborhood improvements portion of the City’s $850 million bond. Aside from building homes for low-income residents, DeLeon said any financial assistance for disadvantaged homeowners can have a positive impact.

DeLeon cited one such example – the Under 1 Roof program that helps eligible low-income homeowners to replace their roof with highly reflective roofing material, which can result in energy savings.

“Believe me, it does work. It saves you money,” DeLeon added.

Alice Salinas with the Local Initiatives Support Corp. said San Antonio needs a “truly affordable bond.

“Quality affordable housing can make a difference in a family’s life,” she added.

Several residents stated their support for lowering the threshold for voters to petition for initiative or recall. Patrick Von Dohlen, a far-right conservative that ran for the District 9 Council seat this year, said using a threshold such as 15% of voters who actually cast ballots in the City’s last election would be more reasonable than using a percentage of registered voters. The result, he said, would be a more manageable number of voter signatures needed to advance a petition.

Homeowner Taxpayer Association President Bob Martin supports lowering the petition-initiative threshold. He also argued against extending terms for elected officials because four-year terms could lead to complacency.

Several University of Texas at San Antonio students and members of MOVE San Antonio offered their ideas. Madison Flores said extending terms of office would allow a mayor and Council members more time to address issues and get better acquainted with their constituents.

She added the only time Council members really get to meet with residents is during the budgeting process and re-election campaigns.

“A year and a half isn’t enough to make a substantial difference,” Flores said.

Colleen Waguespack, president of Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, read a letter from past NNOD President Chuck Saxer, voicing support for an independent Ethics Review Board.

“The Council must be open and transparent in its decision-making,” Waguespack stated from Saxer’s letter.

Former Councilwoman Elena Guajardo made several suggestions. The City should seek three forms of identification from a mayoral or Council candidate upon his/her filing an application, she proposed.

“Put the burden of proof on the candidate and not on the City,” she added.

Guajardo opposes extending terms of office, and moving the May election to November. The latter, Guajardo said, could produce voter fatigue and crowded ballots, especially if it were during an even-numbered year where statewide or national races are involved.

Guajardo also suggested if a November municipal election leads to a December runoff, it would be tough to get distracted voters to the polls, and election judges back on the job once more.

Guajardo did express support for having Planning Commission members appointed by each Council district.

“It’s time to have a commission whose constituents are affected by those developments,” she added.

Alyssa Pope supports moving the May elections to November in odd-numbered years.

“If we held elections in November, there’d be less confusion,” she said, adding that such a move raises awareness of state constitutional issues.

Commission members complimented residents for their proposals and creativity.

“We promised we’d listen to everyone and that we wouldn’t waste time,” Webster said.

“You guys are young, but you’ve put together some really sophisticated ideas,” Romero told the students.

The full CRC will meet again June 26 and July 10 and 24 at the media briefing room at City Hall. The subcommittees will meet at different times in the same room.

Full meeting dates and times will be posted at City Hall and on the City’s website. These meetings will be open to the public.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.