The San Antonio-area’s top local officials took the opportunity to castigate state officials Monday, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff criticized state-level efforts to discourage voters from using mail-in ballots.

“The fact that a face mask is not required [at a polling site] is a detriment to us,” he said. “And the fact that the state, in all their stupidity, has tried to tell people mail-in ballots are dangerous and they shouldn’t do it, and we’re not going to have any more drop-off [mail-in ballot] places, it’s just total fabrication.”

Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined San Antonio Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard for a Monday morning conversation kicking off the third annual San Antonio Report CityFest, the nonprofit newsroom’s ideas festival that continues through Friday. In the first event of the week, Nirenberg and Wolff discussed local approaches to the pandemic, recovery efforts, and the upcoming election. They also jabbed at certain officials for state-level decisions.

Wolff recalled the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic, which he characterized as “under control” until the state intervened. Up until May 5, he felt that Nirenberg and himself had “stemmed the tide” of the novel virus, Wolff said.

“We had very few people in the hospital,” Wolff said. “And then on May 5, the governor stripped our right away to have a fine on those that didn’t comply with the face mask [mandate], a terrible mistake. And we both said that.”

“May 12, the Attorney General [Ken Paxton] writes us a really nasty letter, accusing us of stepping on religious rights … so it was a nasty period of time. So when that happened to us, then the cases exploded across our community and across the state.”

Abbott eventually issued his own face mask mandate in July, which Wolff credited for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. But he’s still cautious about state-level public health response.

“Now, we’re doing good,” he said. “But that can change on a dime. If the governor wakes up tomorrow and changes the rules, everything can spin back the other way.”

Nirenberg also took the time to revisit the recent decision against moving the Cenotaph at the Alamo, calling the project “gripped” with politics in the face of opposition from Republicans including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The idea behind the Alamo redevelopment plan is to tell the history of the battleground, burial ground, and center for civic life, Nirenberg said.

“The Cenotaph is smack dab in the middle of the grounds,” he said. “But at the same time, the Alamo development plan and the guiding principles of it are much larger than the Cenotaph. And I believe that the strongest part of this entire process is creating a partnership where we could agree on those guiding principles with the state. That to me is worth protecting from the likes of Dan Patrick and others who want to gut the intentions of us doing our part to preserve this most critical part of Texas in American history.”

Wolff said again Monday that he plans for this term to be his last as county judge. Wolff will turn 80 later in this month, and his term ends in 2022. Nirenberg, who is in his second term, said he intends to run again next year.

Meanwhile, Nirenberg said he thinks San Antonio residents recognize the importance of funding workforce development opportunities as the City recovers from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Our economy is changing,” Nirenberg said. “160,000 thereabouts unemployment claimants – we know from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that a full quarter to a third of those jobs aren’t coming back at all. And so not only is this going to be a slow recovery, it’s going to really affect lower-income workers, underemployed. And we’ve got to create a pathway for them not just to get back to work, but for them to get back to an economically mobile situation for family-sustaining wages. This is the key: provide a pathway to education.”

Recent survey results from the latest Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll shows community support for all three propositions that will be on the ballot in November. The first asks voters to re-up funding for Pre-K for SA, the second asks for sales tax revenue currently allocated to aquifer protection and linear creekways to fund a City workforce development program, and the third asks for the sales tax revenue to go to improving mass transit after the City finishes collecting it in 2026.

The same poll also found that most people surveyed either somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that police unions act as barriers to holding local police officers accountable for misconduct. Nirenberg said the system of accountability for police officers needed to be addressed, looking forward to the police union contract expiration next September.

“I think the police union would have to be tone-deaf to not understand there is a huge concern out in our community that’s only growing with regard to the disciplinary process and accountability, that the chief has to make sure that officers accused of misconduct are handled appropriately,” Nirenberg said.

That sentiment was echoed by San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh during a later CityFest panel with the city managers of San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, and San Jose, California.

(Clockwise, from top left) San Antonio Report Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick moderates a discussion with San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax, El Paso City Manager Tommy González, and San Jose City Manager Dave Sykes during CityFest. Credit: San Antonio Report

Walsh said the issues of accountability, discipline, and arbitration within the police department will be priorities as the negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Department begins next year.

“Our collective bargaining agreement with [the police officers] association ends next September, so we’re required to start negotiating next January,” Walsh said. “And so, although it was a priority of ours in the last round of negotiations, we did not make any change in those areas. It was all focused on health care … And we’ve been very clear with the association. I want the ability, just like I have for all the other city employees, to have a role in the termination or disciplining of police officers. It’s too critical.”

Walsh and the other city managers spoke about how their local governments have responded to protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd in May and their emergency planning efforts going forward with lessons learned from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. One of the key factors: coordination across city departments and talking to each other for advice.

“We stole ideas from [other city managers] and hopefully they used some of our concepts as well, and we’re better as a state because we’re making each other stronger,” El Paso City Manager Tommy González said.

CityFest continues through Friday. Find the full schedule of events here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.