The city of San Antonio plans to launch a free parking and transit program for people who want to speak at certain City Council meetings early next year in an effort to reduce barriers to civic participation.

Wednesday evening public comment sessions will kick off a pilot program, city staff told council members, but several urged staff to immediately add free parking and transit for “A” session meetings on Thursdays, when council takes action.

The discussion took place during the Community Health, Environment and Culture committee meeting Tuesday. The proposed program would work like this: participants would register as public commenters online or in-person, and then request help with either parking validation or transit. The city would provide parking validation for two hours in the City Tower garage by city hall, or VIA Metropolitan Transit would issue ride credits to an individual’s VIA card or mobile account.

While council members on the committee expressed support for the program, several said they were concerned about only having the program apply to Wednesday public comment sessions, which start at 5 p.m.

“What really concerns me is, this is also a sort of low-turnout event,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who also chairs the committee. “Not just for the public, but also for the members of our own body, and that could truly be discouraging to the members of the public who come and comment.”

She and council members Mario Bravo (D1), Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5) asked staff to expand the program to include parking validation for Thursday “A session” meetings, when council takes action on items. Laura Mayes, assistant director of government & public affairs, said she understands the desire to reduce as many barriers for public commenters as possible, but the parking garage by city hall has limited spaces.

“On transit, we have a little bit more flexibility, but again we want to reduce any barriers to participation,” she said. “We’ve added virtual comments, as an example, where you can leave a written comment. I know that doesn’t replace the feeling of being in person and talking with your council members.”

Assistant City Manager Jeff Coyle said staff would reconvene with VIA to talk about extending free rides to city hall for Thursday A session meetings as well as Wednesday public comment sessions. As part of the pilot program, staff will collect data about who uses parking or transit assistance to help shape the final program.

The committee also heard about a new initiative to provide child care assistance for members of the city’s boards and commissions. The city offered reimbursement for child care to all of the citizen bond committee members, who are in their last week of evening meetings. Only one person requested and received financial assistance, said Melody Woosley, director of the Department of Human Services.

Researchers who studied the makeup of the city’s boards and commissions found that of 783 members, 43.7% are women, Woosley said.

“Those women held less than one-third of the positions on 29 boards and commissions and held no seats on six of the committees,” she said. “Access to affordable and trusted childcare has been identified as a key barrier not only affecting women in the workforce but also in the area of civic engagement, particularly for low-income women and women of color.”

There is $10,000 allocated for this kind of child care in the fiscal year 2022 budget, Woosley said. Staff hopes to see if child care access encourages more women to apply to serve on boards and commissions, Woosley said. Next summer, they plan to look at the results of the program to determine how to best budget for child care assistance for fiscal year 2023.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.