This article has been updated.
San Antonio City Council voted Thursday to censure Councilman Mario Bravo for his behavior toward Councilwoman Ana Sandoval during a confrontation outside council chambers in September.
An independent investigation determined Bravo (D1) had “aggressively approached and berated” Sandoval (D7), violating the city’s equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment directives, as well as the city’s policy prohibiting violence in the workplace.
The incident occurred on Sept. 15, before Council’s vote approving the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget. The confrontation between the two, who had previously been in a dating relationship, took a personal turn, according to witnesses and a subsequent investigation.
On Thursday, eight council members voted in favor of the resolution. Bravo recused himself from the vote. Councilman Clayton Perry was not in attendance, following a car accident earlier this week.
Sandoval recused herself from the entire meeting Thursday.
Bravo said in an emailed statement Thursday that he intends to continue serving on City Council. He has retained a lawyer, the Express-News reported.
“Since that day I have sought spiritual guidance and focused on deep reflection and personal growth,” Bravo said. “I am ready to take feedback and make amends, and I commit to holding myself to a higher standard.”
Witnesses outside the City Council chamber said that before the meeting on Sept. 15 Bravo accosted Sandoval, suggesting to her that her actions surrounding the budget vote were a reminder of why their relationship didn’t work out. Sandoval was brought to tears, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
Sandoval’s staff said Thursday that Bravo never apologized to her beyond the apology he sent to each council member, which named her in the third person.
Bravo’s parents and current girlfriend were both in attendance and spoke in defense of his character, trying to persuade council members not to sanction the first-term councilman.
“I feel like I’ve been on every ride at Fiesta Texas over and over and I want to get off. … I’m crying and hurting,” Burgundy Hubbert, Bravo’s girlfriend, told council members.
Constituents from District 1 also spoke against the move and Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s decision to strip Bravo of his committee assignments while an investigation was conducted. Nirenberg said an announcement about the future of the committee assignments would be made in the near future.
“We have standards of behavior that we were briefed on as a body in February,” Nirenberg said of the procedure the city was following.
“As with any workplace, when those standards are violated after a thorough investigation, there’s action, and so we took it. Elected officials are expected to uphold or exceed the highest standards so we handled the situation, I believe, appropriately and as prudently as any other elected body would.”
Council members received training on the city’s workplace conduct policy but plan to lay out clear rules for themselves following Thursday’s resolution. City spokeswoman Laura Mayes said the training was “with the expectation that those directives would apply to council members and their respective staffs.”
First term on City Council
Bravo was elected to City Council in 2021, when he unseated six-year incumbent and fellow progressive Roberto Treviño. As a former project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, Bravo had no previous experience in elected office.
Political observers chalked Bravo’s surprising win up to Trevino’s differences with North Side residents over homelessness, as well as the incumbent’s previous clashes with Nirenberg.
Since taking office, Bravo has generally advocated for better environmental strategies, and supported moving money away from the San Antonio Police Department to fund other public safety initiatives. His attempts to influence the 2022 fiscal year budget process drew criticism from colleagues who shot down his proposed amendments, leading Bravo to abstain from voting on the city’s overall budget.
According to City Clerk records, Bravo has never filed a council consideration request, which is the most common way to propose local legislation or policies.
A ripe opportunity
Headed into the fiscal year 2023 budget discussions, Bravo saw an opportunity to influence policy another way, lobbying colleagues to direct excess CPS Energy revenue toward environmental initiatives.
When city staff put forward a proposal calling to spend the $30 million on a rebate for ratepayers — following unusually high energy bills over the summer — Bravo immediately began promoting a counterproposal.
He lobbied colleagues to support a plan to instead spend the money on home weatherization efforts, an idea endorsed by environmental groups.
Though Nirenberg was a supporter of the rebate plan, other council members shared Bravo’s skepticism, suggesting that the percentage-based structure would give the biggest rebates to people with large homes and corporate customers, not low-income residents who need it most.
City staff scrapped a plan to vote on the rebate proposal apart from the rest of the budget.
“It’s dead,” Bravo said of the rebate idea at that point. “It was originally supposed to be voted on [Thursday]. They don’t have the votes.”
Yet the rebate plan was still included in the overall budget proposal when it came before the full Council in September.
City Manager Erik Walsh told City Council in a final budget amendment meeting on Sept. 14 that city staff had made some adjustments to the rebate plan based on council members’ feedback. Since they hadn’t agreed on an alternative plan for the money, however, they would be voting on a budget that included it the following day.
In a last-ditch effort to stall the rebate plan, Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) introduced an amendment that would have separated the excess CPS Energy money from the rest of the budget discussion. It failed on a 5-5 vote, with Sandoval abstaining.
The rebate was approved along with the rest of the $3.4 billion fiscal year 2023 budget on a 9-1 vote, with Bravo casting the lone no vote and Viagran abstaining.
Viagran was the only member of City Council to speak on the dais about Thursday’s censure vote.
“Today’s vote is about Sept. 15, decorum, dignity, respecting each other and the office we hold,” said Viagran, who voted to censure Bravo. “It’s about moving forward.”
Bravo’s version of events that day goes like this: After he included Sandoval’s ideas for the money in his own proposal, the mayor put Sandoval’s plan directly into the budget, and she “broke her promise at the last hour” to delay the discussion, according to a statement Bravo released several days later.
“I lost my cool and said things that I regret,” Bravo said in a statement after details of the incident became public, adding that he struggled “to understand why she [Sandoval] compromised her principles in last week’s vote.” He said that he “became emotionally overwhelmed” on the day of the incident, according to a statement after the censure vote.
Sandoval said little about her votes on Sept. 15. In an Oct. 7 letter to constituents titled “why I abstained,” she said she didn’t want to delay the discussion further, nor did she support the rebate proposal, which she believed wasn’t an equitable redistribution of the funds.
“I ultimately would have preferred to use the excess revenue from CPS Energy differently,” Sandoval wrote. “However, there was not an obvious path forward for a realistic alternative.”
An outside investigation
City Attorney Andy Segovia said the city was handling the incident as a “workplace conduct issue” that “involves an executive.” He said the outside attorney had been brought on to “provide a legal analysis of the potential liability to the city.”
New Braunfels attorney Natalie Rougeux interviewed Bravo and Sandoval, as well as other witnesses, for the independent investigation of the day’s events, Segovia said. She also reviewed video footage recorded before and during the meeting, and sought written statements and additional evidence from witnesses.
Last week City Council met behind closed doors for roughly two hours to review the results of the investigation, which have not been released to the public. Neither Sandoval nor Bravo were in the room.
Bravo sought to present evidence in his defense dating back before Sept. 15 but was not permitted to do so, city sources said last week. He has retained a lawyer, the Express-News reported.
Segovia said Thursday that information involving events “occurring before Sept. 15. are not pertinent to the investigation or to the resolution.”
“That is, unless you presuppose that past wrongs, perceived or real, somehow justify or excuse what would otherwise be considered unacceptable behavior in the workplace,” Segovia said. “That is not the legal framework under which we operate… There is no payback or retribution exceptions under our policy.”
Segovia said the process the city used is a “best practice,” and one that is “used by any organization that takes workplace safety seriously and workplace environments seriously.”
In a statement, Sandoval thanked “everyone who has contacted me to check on my well-being over the past few weeks.”
“I do not intend to comment further on this matter,” Sandoval said.
Senior reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this report.