Public safety, socioeconomic equity, transportation, and City charter reform were among the issues that Mayor Ron Nirenberg addressed in a town hall Thursday. It was one of Nirenberg’s first town halls since his election in June.
More than 120 people attended the town hall meeting at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. Francine Romero, associate dean of the UTSA College of Public Policy, presented questions submitted by the public prior to the event.
Many people had questions about San Antonio’s rising crime rate and how to improve relations between the community and police.
Socioeconomics factored into the conversation, with Nirenberg saying crime is mostly due to disparity in the levels of basic infrastructure and well-paying jobs in different parts of the city. He said it’s the City’s responsibility to build up quality of life through all of its services, from road maintenance to economic development, especially in struggling neighborhoods.
“When we’re building streets and sidewalks, we’re making sure we’re reinvesting in communities that haven’t seen that investment in a long time,” he said.
The mayor explained that encouraging affordable housing, particularly in the inner city, also would enhance the quality of life. Promoting socioeconomic equity citywide will play role in annual budget planning, he added.
“We’ll use equity as a guide to re-establishing our budget priorities,” he said.
Nirenberg recently went on a ride-along with police, visiting a few hot spots of criminal activity. He talked with some community members during his ride-along, with a few of those individuals acknowledging that they are repeat offenders. The mayor said those repeat offenders convinced him much of the City’s crime can be attributed to socioeconomic disparity – lack of educational and job opportunities.
The mayor also emphasized the importance of community policing and a positive working relationship between neighborhoods and law enforcement personnel.
“The focus for San Antonio police in fighting crime, and preventing it, is through community policing,” he said.
Nirenberg called for stronger dialogue between neighborhoods and police, especially where the illegal production and distribution of drugs is concerned.
He cited the recent drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of 4-year-old De-Earlvion Whitley. Federal law enforcement officials said they are investigating whether Charles Bethany, a local man jailed on federal drug charges, may have been the intended target of the shooting.
“The community is outraged,” Nirenberg said. “We want to focus on that anger and channel it into productive dialogue.
“It’s not just drugs from Mexico, it’s drugs made in someone’s garage – cannabinoids, opioids. It has made policing of drugs and gang activity much more complicated.”
Nirenberg also said the City must demonstrate “zero tolerance on actions unbecoming of a police officer” in order to help shore up public trust.
Improving transportation options was another big issue at the town hall. Nirenberg said the entire community must help local officials to make tough decisions to arrive at long- and short-term solutions.
“We can’t afford not to do transportation right,” Nirenberg said, adding that the solution does not include merely building more roads. The aim, he said, is to introduce more mass transit options.
“The goal is reduce the rate at which we’ve been adding cars to our existing road capacity,” he said.
Nirenberg said the City will keep working with local, state and federal authorities to identify funding sources for transformative changes in local transportation systems.
“We don’t know all of the solutions now, but we need your help in finding them,” he said.
Local voters are due in the near future to consider reauthorizing portions of the City’s sales tax that fund the Pre-K 4 SA program and Edwards Aquifer protection initiatives.
Nirenberg said those are the types of choices voters must face in exploring available money and major transportation solutions. He said he would not be one to instantly nix Pre-K 4 SA or environmental preservation.
“We need to have a discussion on how we’ll invest in mass transit,” he added.
Some people asked questions about City governance and ideas for reforming the City’s charter. Nirenberg said he supports one proposal to extend elected officials’ term limits from two to four years. He said that would give elected office-holders time to get their feet wet and have an impact, especially on sensitive issues. The longer term limit also means officials would not need to worry about frequent election campaign cycles.
“I’m looking for any opportunity to reduce politics in our governance,” Nirenberg said.
Another charter reform proposal would move May municipal elections to November. Nirenberg said he understands criticisms of the proposal. But having November elections, he said, would produce higher voter turnout and would help newly elected City Council members have more time to explore complicated issues such as the budget.
Nirenberg addressed efforts to restart the City’s negotiations with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“It can be resolved if we have honest, face-to-face negotiations,” he said.
The mayor said such negotiations must be devoid of the fiery rhetoric that dominated labor talks between the City and the police union.
“I’m not going to negotiate through the media, social media or lob bombs at each other,” he added. “We’ve turned a page. It’s a new day in San Antonio.”
Nirenberg took on what he called the state legislature’s attempts to reduce local authority.
He repeated criticisms of proposals on the special legislative session agenda, including the “bathroom bill,” curbs on property tax rates, annexation, tree ordinances, and texting while driving.
Nirenberg said it’s unusual for state lawmakers to believe that local governance is best, yet endorse laws that would strip some control in cities and counties.
“But the real sin in this attack on local authority is, we know what our constituents want,” he said.
Questions about the Vista Ridge water supply project also arose at the town hall. Nirenberg said he still has many concerns about it. He did not like that the Council was unable to preview changes that have occurred in the contract.
As mayor, Nirenberg now has an ex-officio position on the San Antonio Water System board. He plans to use that role to question all aspects of the Vista Ridge project.
“It’s my commitment that any major changes in the contract come before the Council,” he said.
But one thing is clear: San Antonio must shore up its water supply and diversify its options as its population grows, Nirenberg said.
“This is a nuanced issue,” he said. “We can’t afford not to secure long-term water for our City.”