More than a dozen residents offered new ideas and criticized some current City Council charter amendment suggestions in a public hearing of the City’s Charter Review Commission (CRC).
The gathering Wednesday night was the first of three public hearings the commission is scheduled to hold at San Antonio’s Central Library downtown. The mayor-appointed commission members are charged with reviewing a potential new slate of amendments to the City charter, which is essentially San Antonio’s constitution, which voters originally adopted in 1951. The charter has since included more than 100 amendments passed by voters in nine elections.
The Council has suggested several possible amendments, including extending municipal terms from two to four years, adjusting term limits to two four-year terms, staggering Council election cycles, and moving the election date from May to November.
The CRC is considering other Council-suggested amendments, including appointing Planning Commission members by Council district, revising the Ethics Review Board appointment process, permitting the use of City bond funds on affordable housing, and revamping the way a mayoral or Council candidate must comply with residency criteria.
“I liked some of the ideas I heard tonight more than some that came from the Council,” said CRC member Frank Garza, who has experience as a municipal attorney in the San Antonio area.
Diane Duesterhoeft, a COPS/Metro Alliance member, said her organization is open to the idea of using municipal bonds toward affordable housing. But she said that some of that money should be used to fund assistance for owner-occupied home rehabilitation.
“Helping homeowners to stay in their homes also helps to preserve neighborhoods,” Duesterhoeft said.
Natalie Griffith, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity San Antonio, pushed for what she called a “real housing bond” to directly help low-income people who want to own homes and homeowners who are struggling to maintain their houses.
“San Antonio’s housing needs are broad. It’s single-family, multi-family and repairs,” she said.
Some residents were more varied with their proposals, including those meant to bolster the public’s trust and participation, and curtail unethical governance and special interest influence.
Nikki Kuhns said she supports changing the current Council-city manager form of government to a mayor-City Council form. She explained that the current form of government limits decision-making power among elected leaders. She said that the appointed city manager and staff should be more accountable to taxpayers. Kuhns suggested adopting wording in Houston’s city charter that allows voters the ability to recall any City official, elected or not.
“It is my hope you truly have a citizen-led process, which I didn’t see in 2015,” Kuhns said of the charter review process.
Former mayoral candidate Antonio Diaz echoed Kuhns’ concerns.
“It gives the facade that we have input and participate in our governance,” Diaz said. “I also hope see more proposals that benefit the citizens.”
Allen Townsend, president of the Palm Heights Neighborhood Association, suggested subdividing the existing 10 Council districts, saying that population growth has made some districts too large for one Council member to serve effectively.
Jack Finger, a regular attendee of Council meetings who is often critical of City government, opposed the idea of extending Council terms in office.
“Getting bad incumbents off the Council is hard enough,” he said.
Finger also shared the feelings of a few other residents who think moving the City elections from May to November is a bad idea. He said ballots in even-numbered years are already crowded because of county, statewide, and national elections.
Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE San Antonio, said having November elections could increase voter turnout and pique young voters’ interest.
“Voting is a habit. Most new voters begin their journey during a presidential election,” he said.
Former Councilwoman Elena Guajardo criticized suggestions to extending Council terms and moving the May elections, saying the latter could confuse voters already facing a lengthy ballot.
“Two years [in terms] is a checks and balance system,” she said.
Guajardo backs reform of the Planning Commission appointment process, saying the existing system tends to favor appointees tied to development interests. Guajardo also said that the authority of the City clerk’s office should be strengthened to immediately verify a candidate’s residency. In the current municipal elections, residency questions arose for two Council candidates.
Commission Chairman Jeff Webster, a former District 10 Council member, said his group will study all ideas offered by the Council and the public. But he added there are no guarantees that most proposals will be recommended to the Council for inclusion in a charter amendment election.
Voters last passed charter amendments in May 2015. One requires a public election on streetcar or light rail proposals and another set mayoral and Council compensation rates. An additional 2015 amendment mandates holding a special election to fill a mayoral or Council vacancy with more than 120 days left in the term of office.
Subcommittees of commission members will be addressing various proposals into early July. Two more public hearings will be held June 7 and 14 at the Central Library auditorium, each starting at 6 p.m. The plan is for the Council to consider the commission’s recommendations in August and decide whether to call a charter election in November.
“This will be an open, transparent process,” Webster said.
The CRC meetings are broadcast live on the City’s government television station and livestreamed via the City’s website.