City Council will have four new committees in which to discuss and develop policies starting this year: Transportation; Community Health and Equity; Comprehensive Planning; and Arts, Culture, and Heritage.
The new working groups, according to a statement issued by Mayor Ron Nirenberg Wednesday afternoon, “mark a shift in the city’s policy focus and reflect conversations that I and my council colleagues have had with the community.”
Three committees will be dissolved: Neighborhoods and Livability; Transportation, Technology, and Utilities; and Housing. They will be folded into the Comprehensive Planning Committee – bringing the total number of Council working groups from eight up to nine.
“From a tactical perspective, there are many issues that have been orphaned by the committee process that have the effect of short-shifting deep policy conversations,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report.
City Council identified transportation, specifically public transit, as one of the top budgetary priorities during preliminary budget talks last month. Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) will chair the Transportation Committee.
The committee changes are also aimed at underscoring the “priorities of the community by having these standalone committees on arts, culture, heritage, community health, and equity,” Nirenberg said.
However, this does not mean that there will be less emphasis on housing or infrastructure, he said.
“There is going to be a sharper focus on developing a comprehensive housing policy through a commission. … Housing cannot be removed from a conversation about equitable and planned growth. Having a focus on housing as a pillar of a healthy city is important.”
Nirenberg does not expect issues to simply conform to committee names.
“The charge I gave to [Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)], was that anything that has to do with equity, I want her to bring it up at the committee level,” he said. In other words, Sandoval should consider anything that could have to do with housing, workforce development, or other issues outside the assumed scope of the Community Health and Equity Committee that she will chair.
As a climate change scientist and environmentalist, Sandoval appears to be the perfect fit for the new committee that will tackle climate preparedness and resiliency, air quality, public health education, social services, libraries, parks, and more.
The Comprehensive Planning Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), is essentially a reinvention of a similar committee that was formed for the SA Tomorrow plan development process – one that former Mayor Ivy Taylor scrapped once the plan was approved. Then-Councilman Nirenberg (D8) was chair of that committee.
“One of my big criticisms about SA Tomorrow was community input,” Gonzales said. “We had a lot, but we left out a lot of people and they don’t understand the necessity of [the three-pronged comprehensive plan] and how it’s going to impact their lives.”
This committee is an opportunity to bring those broad goals and the scope of the plan down to the district and actual policy levels, she said. “Implementation [of SA Tomorrow] is key, and being able to connect that to funding … I think that’s what people want to see – funding and impact to quality of life.”
The Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee will consider a wide range of initiatives as well. It will focus on the Tricentennial celebrations in the works for next year, but also on the World Heritage-designated Spanish-colonial Missions (including the Alamo), historic preservation, and more. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect, will chair that committee.
“Every Mayor is tasked with deploying council committees that are responsive and timely to the needs of the city. The design of these committees demonstrate a desire to tackle difficult issues,” Treviño told the Rivard Report. “Our focus will be on how we can bring our city together through our diversity and heritage.”
Previously, arts were only really talked about at weekly briefing session with the full Council where “it gets way off the rails when we start talking about cheese graters,” Nirenberg said, referencing a comment that former Councilman Joe Krier (D9) made about a controversial piece of public art. “Here’s a place [a committee] where we can have an informed discussion about art and heritage.”
The Tricentennial, which some city and community leaders say is behind on fundraising and event planning goals, will take up much of the committee’s agenda.
“Like many parts of the city, [the Tricentennial] was needing a little shot in the arm that hopefully we can provide,” Nirenberg said. “[That will require] more fundraising so we don’t need to stunt our programming, but also a sharper focus for the vision of San Antonio – it’s not only about 300 years ago, it’s supposed to be the beginning of the next 300 years.”
In a way, he added, the Tricentennial is about the comprehensive plan.
“When people look back 300 years from now, hopefully they will see some policy milestones that are created [in 2018] – Our gifts to San Antonio on its birthday,” Nirenberg said.
It is not atypical for a new mayor to make adjustments to committee structure, as new administrations often refocus policy goals.
Click here to download Nirenberg’s memo that includes a membership list and descriptions of the new and remaining Council committees.