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Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) are known for being at odds on several issues, but during a mayoral debate hosted by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, they teamed up to defend the 2017 Municipal Bond after Manuel Medina called it a fiscally irresponsible package that prioritizes projects by “friends of the City.”
Medina, who is chairman of the Bexar County Democratic party, is one of 14 candidates running to unseat Taylor in the May 6 election. On Thursday night, Medina, Taylor, and Nirenberg discussed issues ranging from trade to challenges at the San Antonio airport during the debate at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. But the most contentious issues proved to be high-speed rail between Austin and San Antonio region, the $850 million bond, and ethics reform.
Medina accused Parks and Recreation bond committee members of not pushing projects for all parks across the city, but Nirenberg defended the process by which citizens suggested projects for inclusion in the bond package. The parks and recreation portion of the bond package is $121 million.
“It was a robust citizen process,” he said. “… The notion that three citizens or 35 citizens didn’t get it right flies in the face of a citizen-directed oversight project.”
Medina said that the bond is fiscally irresponsible, comparing it to maxing out a JCPenney credit card. Taylor rejected that notion, calling it “ridiculous.”
“I would like to address the misstatement that has just been made by the chairman,” Taylor said. “I will say that I will attribute that to his lack of experience or knowledge regarding city government and financing these large capital projects. His characterization is simply inaccurate.”
Taylor pointed to the city’s AAA credit rating, and added that San Antonio is far below state limits when it comes to how much municipalities can borrow.
The disagreements did not stop there. Nirenberg criticized Taylor for restarting the bidding process for the 10-year, multimillion dollar contract to operate the San Antonio River Walk barge fleet.
“That is a chilling effect for every business around this country who wants to do business with the city of San Antonio … and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Nirenberg, adding that the contracting process was deemed fair and ethical by the City attorney.
Taylor questioned the fairness of the process after she learned that former Mayor Phil Hardberger, representing Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises, was allowed to address the 11-member citizen selection committee as part of the company’s response to a request for proposals.
“I certainly reject the notion that there were no concerns related to the river barge contract,” Taylor said. “There was a very clear concern that compelled me to take action … It’s unfortunate that my council colleague has used some of these incidents to try and create a political narrative to his benefit.”
Medina, who has repeatedly said he wants to be “the transportation mayor,” promised to reduce drive times by 10% in the city’s most congested traffic corridors and accused his opponents of “walking away” from the Lone Star rail project.
“San Antonio and its council has traditionally not been supportive,” Medina said. “But I’m really glad it’s election season and they’re with me on this.”
Nirenberg said the city has been working on bringing a rail line to the region for more than 20 years.
“Everyone along this corridor wants to see this regional rail happen. The trouble is, we need leadership to make it happen,” Nirenberg said. “We need to make sure we’re working with the state government … [and] make it a priority for economic purposes and that’s how we make it happen.”
Taylor said the City is in the process of exploring additional options for bringing rail to the Austin-San Antonio region.
“It’s totally inaccurate to say that we’ve gotten on board during election season,” Taylor said. “This is something that we have endorsed in our budget every single year for probably the last 10 years.”
Medina also called for a change in local election dates, suggesting a move to November to align municipal elections with national and state elections. Taylor explained that the City charter calls for elections to be held in May because municipal elections are nonpartisan.
Nirenberg agreed with Medina, saying moving the election date would help increase citizen participation.
“It can happen in a nonpartisan way, respecting the local government process,” Nirenberg said. “In other cities like Austin, when they moved their local elections from May to November, they saw a fourfold increase in participation one election to the next.”
The debate was moderated by Steve Spriester of KSAT12, which partnered with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Bexar County Medical Society to sponsor the debate.