After San Antonio’s new mayor and six new City Council members are sworn in on Wednesday, June 21, they will convene for the first time the following day. Only four seats will be filled by incumbents who survived election challengers this year.
Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg will move three seats to his right, from the District 8 spot into the mayor’s chair. Nirenberg scored a convincing victory over incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor after he won the runoff election by nine commanding points.
“Certainly there was a lot of skepticism about whether or not this was a feasible path,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report on Sunday. “… Eventually, over the last year and a half the signs pointed to the fact that in order to influence a better outcome in the city, it required a change in leadership.”
Taylor joins two Council colleagues, Alan Warrick (D2) and Cris Medina (D7), who lost their seats in the runoffs. Medina lost outright to Ana Sandoval in the May 6 general election.
Five other newcomers will be on the dais: William “Cruz” Shaw (D2), Greg Brockhouse (D6), Manny Pelaez (D8), John Courage (D9), and Clayton Perry (D10).
This new Council has less than two weeks together before the traditional month-long recess in July. City staff will assist with orientation sessions in the days after the inauguration, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, informing them on basics like where their office is located, explaining how office budget works, how meeting agendas are composed, etc. New members will also receive one-on-one briefings from police and fire officers and from staff in the Transportation and Capital Improvements department.
“We do this every two years,” Sculley told the Rivard Report on Sunday, adding that she has overseen a majority turnover multiple times in her 13-year tenure.
There are a number of issues this Council faces as soon as its members return. The fiscal year 2018 budget discussions begin in August, as City officials keep a keen eye on the Texas Legislature, which will be meeting in a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Council may also be asked to consider several revisions to the City Charter, including one proposal that would increase elected terms in office from two to four years. A special election could be held in November to decide the charter reform, but a decision would have to be made by Aug. 1 to officially set the ballot by mid-August.
Much of that path forward is in the hands of the Charter Review Commission, which could decide it doesn’t have adequate time to discuss or review all proposals.
The first of the Commission’s next meetings, all of which are open to the public, is on Wednesday, June 14, at 6 p.m.
Ethics and campaign finance reform, unifying local elections with state and federal elections in November, and extending terms are changes Nirenberg would like to see advance to a citywide vote.
“It takes on a Congressional pace after a while,” Nirenberg said of the seemingly constant campaigning necessary to keep up with two-year terms. “And nobody is complimenting Congressional pace.”
As for his priorities with the next fiscal year budget, which legally has to be balanced and in place by Sept. 14, he’ll be targeting some “low-hanging fruit with regards to basic infrastructure” and making sure the City is “holding the line on community safety net programs that find themselves in dire need as a result of state and federal cuts.”
Nirenberg added that he’s looking forward to hearing the priorities of his new – and continuing – colleagues.
One of Taylor’s criticisms of Nirenberg throughout the election was his struggle to build Council consensus on his side of several issues.
“Most initiatives I put forward and was out on front on were met with unanimous support,” Nirenberg said, “… with few notable exceptions.”
“There’s a difference between consensus and rubber-stamping,” he said. “For us to to be a fully functional government body that represents all the dynamic voices we have … we have to embrace disagreement and we have to build on the multitude of perspectives to bring us to common ground.”
Taylor was not available for an interview on Sunday.
The month-long break in July is only from regularly scheduled A and B session meetings. Work continues in district offices and at City Hall.
“There’s going to be a lot of work in the city in July,” said Nirenberg, who has met all of his new colleagues at least once throughout the election cycle. He intends to discuss the possibility of a meeting or two next month to make sure they take advantage of that time.
Nirenberg also has the option of calling for a Council retreat during the last week of June for members to get better acquainted, Sculley said.
This new Council will shape the evolving Alamo Master Plan, oversee implementation of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan and at least a portion of the $850 million 2017 bond, play roles in the events planned for and executed during San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebrations in 2018, and likely see the transfer of the old Frost Bank office building from the bank to the City when its new tower is completed in 2019 – along with other major downtown projects planned for the next two years. All that will occur on top of the promises the candidates – now-Council members – made to improve basic infrastructure, transportation, and public safety in their districts.
But perhaps one the biggest pieces of unfinished business is the City’s contract with the firefighters union.
New Council members will eventually receive a status update on the almost 3-year-old lawsuit that the City filed challenging the constitutionality of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association‘s 10-year evergreen clause in its contract. This legal battle is one of several that came out of a process started by former Mayor Julián Castro in 2013 to reduce the burden of ballooning healthcare costs for uniformed employees and their families. It was at least partially resolved by Taylor last year when the City and police union, which was battling an identical lawsuit that has since been dropped, finally agreed on a 5-year contract that reduced the evergreen clause to eight years, among other compromises.
The firefighters union’s contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014. The evergreen clause keeps most of the terms of its old contract in place – without cost of living increases – until 2024. It seems that penalty does not outweigh the longevity pay and free health care that members receive while operating under the evergreen clause. Court-ordered mediation between the City and the union has stalled, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
The new Council features a familiar face in the City’s negotiations – or lack thereof – with the firefighters union: Councilman-elect Brockhouse used to work as a political consultant for both the police and fire unions.
Brockhouse stopped working with the unions in October of last year, he told the Rivard Report before the runoff vote. “I’m a fierce defender and 100% behind our first responders, but [if elected], I’m tasked to represent the residents of District 6. That’s what I’ll do.”
Brockhouse led fierce campaigns against City leadership, especially Sculley, throughout the negotiation process. But Nirenberg is an “optimist” and disagrees with those who speculate that Brockhouse could hinder the negotiation process.
“I think there is clearly a deficit of trust between our public safety unions and the City, and that dynamic between Councilman[-elect] Brockhouse and the union will be an asset to build bridges,” Nirenberg said. “There is an opportunity there.”
About 13% of more than 750,000 registered voters in San Antonio showed up to the polls during the runoff election. That’s 99,237 people. Add to that the number of voters in districts whose incumbent won a majority during the general election (28,564) and you get 127,801 – that’s how many people, in a city with a population of almost 1.5 million, participated in the processes that selected the representatives who will make these decisions and more.
As candidates, these representatives made a lot of commitments to citizens. For all the priorities and goals set out by Nirenberg during the campaign and during his conversation with me on Sunday, he is certainly going to achieve at least one next Thursday.
He’ll be signing an agreement that “We Are Still In” the Paris Agreement recently rejected by the Trump administration.
“The entire city of San Antonio exhaled yesterday,” Nirenberg said. “From within an outside city, politics of division and exclusion tear at the fabric of who we are, and that’s not good. I’m glad that we were able to run a campaign on a message of inclusion and respecting people’s differences and embracing our diversity. … If nothing else, that was what was on the ballot on Saturday.”