In his eight years on City Council before being term-limited out and moving to Washington, Rey Saldaña immersed himself in two major battles. One was to secure additional funding for San Antonio’s undernourished public transit system. The other was to do something about clauses in the city’s police union contract that severely hamper the chief’s ability to discipline bad cops. 

When he left San Antonio to head the national office of Communities in Schools, one of those goals appeared possible. The other appeared dead. Mayor Ron Nirenberg was backing an effort to shift sales tax revenue from aquifer protection and creekside parkways to VIA Metropolitan Transit. It would be a heavy lift, but former Mayor Henry Cisneros and others had joined the push and perhaps voters could be persuaded to approve the measure.

Meanwhile, Saldaña had failed in his efforts to get the City to stand firm on disciplinary changes in the police contract. It had taken years to get the union to agree to having its members pick up a modest portion of their health care costs, and there didn’t seem be an appetite to take on an issue that the union might fight even harder. 

Saldaña has always been thoughtful on the issues, so I called him to get his perspective on both these matters. I found him not in Washington, but back home on the South Side of San Antonio. His entire office is working from home, he explained, and since he and his wife have not yet found a house he might as well be here.

Saldaña was a rising star in San Antonio politics until timing and opportunity took him away. Stanford-educated, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees, he had stunned the city’s political establishment by winning a City Council race as an underdog 24-year-old nine years ago. By the end of his first term representing District 4 some close City Hall watchers considered him to be the council’s most mature member. 

By the time he hit the eight-year term limit last year he felt ready to run for mayor, but he had good relations with Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Bad timing. After some consideration, Saldaña decided not to challenge Nirenberg. Instead, Saldaña accepted the mayor’s appointment as chairman of the VIA board

It was not necessarily a good political move. It would keep him in the public eye, but I’ve lived in nine cities and I can’t recall one in which people were enthusiastic about their mass transit system. What’s more, if the voters rejected Nirenberg’s sales tax scheme – a strong possibility – it would not enhance Saldaña’s standing.

I saw Saldaña’s acceptance of the VIA appointment as a measure of his passion about public transit – a passion he had demonstrated ever since he spent a month riding the bus five years ago. One thing he learned was how many people, especially those he represented from the South Side, depend on the bus to get to work.

In recent months two momentous national events have reversed the chances of Saldaña’s two main issues. The coronavirus shut down the economy and forced Nirenberg to abandon his plan to persuade voters to approve his transportation initiative.

And the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked massive and ongoing demonstrations nationally and made police discipline and accountability a powerful issue everywhere. Now Nirenberg is talking about taking on disciplinary issues in next year’s police contract negotiations and has, at least for now, considerable backing from City Council and the public. 

Saldaña is all for it. He started agitating on the issue back in 2016 when agreement on the current contract was reached. He particularly focused on provisions that put a time limit on the chief’s ability to address even egregious misbehavior and from considering much of the officer’s past history. He also objects to the fact that an arbitrator can and often does overrule the chief’s decisions.

“I don’t think [police officers] realize they are protecting a very toxic culture,” Saldaña said. “My experience was that some officers on the force reached out to me confidentially. They said there is not a culture that lets them report when there was bad behavior. The person would either get a slap on the wrist or the chief fires them and then get they get their job back.”

The officers said there was no reward for blowing the whistle since not much was likely to happen. It was an example of the “few bad apples” having a negative effect on the whole barrel.

“The fact is we have a culture that forces officers to consider their career situation before they report bad behavior,” he said. “I’ve been on a lot of baseball teams. You get in the locker room and you care about each other, but you need to call people out.”

Saldaña said he was trying to convince his council colleagues to go after only a couple of the most egregious disciplinary clauses in the contract, “the low hanging fruit.” But now he hopes they take on all the problematic clauses.

“You need not to be modest in what you ask for,” he said of the next contract. “The union hasn’t been modest.”

Moving on to the transit issue, Saldaña expresses sympathy for Nirenberg’s decision to pull his proposal to transfer the one-eighth-cent sales tax to VIA from aquifer protection and linear parks programs. With the virus-caused collapse of the economy it would be very difficult to guarantee other sources of funding for those popular programs. Still, he says he is “heartbroken” about the decision and makes the two best arguments I’ve heard for the transfer.

Back in the 1970s when the Legislature authorized up to a one-cent sales tax to fund mass transit, San Antonio was the first big city to put a plan before the voters. Perhaps out of a lack of confidence, the City sought only a half-cent tax. Houston, Dallas, and other cities saw San Antonio’s success and had the confidence to go for the full penny for transit.

Over the years the other half cent has been “taken away,” in Saldaña’s words, first in 1989 for the Alamodome, then for the aquifer and linear parks programs, and for Pre-K 4 SA. The two programs that now share the one-eighth-cent tax revenue, aquifer protection and linear parks, have strong constituencies that can make sure they get funding elsewhere, he argued.

The other argument has to do with who uses the buses.

“We’ve seen recently that the essential workers that we rely on ride the buses,” he said, referring to low-wage workers in the food industry and other fields. “They don’t have the luxury of working from home.”

What’s more, these low-income workers don’t have any political power. Saldaña saw that when he first tried, in the wake of seeing how many more bus routes were needed, tried to get $10 million from City Council to increase bus frequency on key bus routes. He lost by a 6-5 vote. Two years later, with Nirenberg in the mayor’s seat, he won that amount, but that was in flush economic times.

The one-eight-cent tax generates about $40 million in good times, which doesn’t likely include the next few years. It would not go far to build the grand transit vision that Nirenberg and Cisneros have described. But it would enhance a bus system now under even more stress and get people who need it most to work.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.