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Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Bexar County Democratic Chairman Manuel Medina revisited their differences over the Vista Ridge pipeline project during a mayoral forum at Trinity University’s Chapman Center auditorium.
The two candidates are running against incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor and 11 other candidates. Taylor did not attend the debate Thursday night because of a scheduling conflict.
During the debate, moderated by UTSA College of Public Policy professor Heywood Sanders, Nirenberg and Medina touched upon environmental topics including climate change, air pollution, water conservation, renewable energy, and transportation.
Medina said that, if elected mayor, he would rescind the $3 billion Vista Ridge project and accused Nirenberg of being beholden to business interests. San Antonio’s mayor sits on the San Antonio Water System board.
“True, the Councilman today is now iffy on the [Vista Ridge] issue,” Medina said. “But he will not say that he will rescind it, because he voted twice with it, because the chamber of commerce wanted it.”
Medina said that adding a second source of water via Vista Ridge could leave the Edwards aquifer recharge zone vulnerable to irresponsible development.
“I think it’s wholly irresponsible for someone to sit up here and talk about the city of San Antonio and just say, ‘Kill the project,’” Nirenberg said. “If we don’t have a plan for a secure water future, that is one of the most devastating things that can happen …
“It is true that I have been a critic of this project, and I will continue to be, but we better have a plan for water that includes conservation, regional responsibility, fiscal responsibility, and transparency.”
Fifty-two people died last year in Bexar County because of poor air quality, Nirenberg said, pointing to a need for addressing the area’s growing air pollution.
“We need take it upon ourselves to make sure our air quality is at certain level. Locally, we need to do our part,” Medina said, adding that there are still a lot of unknowns concerning the fate of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations under the Trump administration. “Climate change is real, and unfortunately we have a new administration that doesn’t believe in it, so local officials and mayors need to take the lead.”
Nirenberg agreed with Medina that “local leaders cannot take their foot off the pedal,” and added that there is a climate action element in the SA Tomorrow plan.
“We are going to create a climate action plan for the city to pursue, and we are working hard on air quality,” Nirenberg said. “…City council recently passed a non-attainment study, which will analyze the effects of public health locally. We will have actual data.”
In Medina’s view, the city’s current tree ordinance “doesn’t have too much teeth.” Nirenberg agreed, adding that there is a threat for such local legislations to be “defanged” by the Texas Legislature.
“This is a very important initiative,” Nirenberg said. “There’s a senator in New Braunfels that wants to take away [our] authority to regulate trees in our territorial jurisdiction, which would have a very devastating effect on quality of life as well as public health. … We just need to make sure that we elect people that defend that right, and we need you all to speak out on that issue.”
Medina commended the city’s current air pollutants ordinance, but called for stricter monitoring of companies who are contaminating the air.
Nirenberg said that making vehicular fleets reduce fuel emissions is a good start on improving air quality. VIA buses and other fleets in the city and county have electrified their vehicles, Nirenberg said, but there is also ongoing discussion of an inspection maintenance program to get poorly maintained vehicles off the road.
“But what will really move the needle is a more aggressive mix of renewables,” he said, emphasizing the importance of working with CPS Energy to continue working toward a 40% renewable energy goal by 2040.
Both Nirenberg and Medina are proponents of exploring a series of commuter benefits, which would provide incentives for those individuals working from home, and therefore, decrease gridlock on highly-transited roads.
“I want to provide business incentives for more people to work from home and stagger hours around peak traffic,” Medina said.
He also promised to improve drive times by 10% percent in the city’s top 50 corridors and work to expand VIA routes and increase ridership.
The city’s general fund budget is substantially dependent on sales of electricity and natural gas by CPS Energy and, therefore, a vigorous program of conservation could threaten the city’s general fund revenue stream, Sanders said. He asked Nirenberg and Medina how they would deal with this tradeoff and promote serious energy conservation goals if elected mayor, which also involves becoming a member of the CPS board of trustees.
“I think that we have to embrace that new reality and encourage more sustainable energy production, including decentralization, but we also have to be mature enough as a city to work within our means and be fiscally responsible,” Nirenberg said.
Medina said that savings attributed to renewable energy outweigh the economic issue, but in his view, the problem lies in not pushing for more “cost-effective government.” He said there are “too many six-figure salaries and pet projects.”
Nirenberg and Medina both said they would support more wind and solar power opportunities and push for creating a pipeline to bring more “green jobs.”
As in previous debates, Medina and Nirenberg clashed on the topic of relieving traffic congestion and pushing for additional mass transportation. While Nirenberg emphasized a push to focus on multimodal transportation across the region, Medina said he would first focus on building a high-speed train connecting San Antonio to Austin.
“[This is one issue where you are] overcritical with the mayor,” Medina told Nirenberg, adding that Nirenberg has been on Council longer than Taylor has been mayor. “It’s one more failure you attribute to her.”
Nirenberg said that public officials have been working to bring rail to the Austin-San Antonio region more than 20 years. He added that metropolitan planning organizations must first agree on a plan, find a route everyone agrees on, and then build it. Another pivotal part, Nirenberg added, is getting the governor’s office on board.
One of the dozen mayoral candidates on the May 6 ballot, Antonio Diaz was given time to speak at the end of Thursday debate despite not having been invited to formally participate. Diaz has appeared at several mayoral debates to protest his exclusion.
Diaz described himself as a member of the Green Party, saying his primary focus is on environmental and social justice. He accused the city of allowing more contamination in the air, water, and soil, and allowing corporations to produce “whatever they want to” without licensing or necessary permits.
“I would not allow it,” Diaz said. “We have SARA, who has no teeth. … They just monitor [and give results]. We need to protect our River Walk. We have Basura Bash [to clean up trash], but what about what’s going into the river? What exhaust are they burning in our air?”
The event was co-sponsored by 25 organizations, including Martinez St. Women’s Center, MOVE San Antonio, Environment Texas, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, San Antonio Air & Health Collaborative, Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, among others.