Petitions in hand, activists deployed to Bexar County poll sites in October and November to gather signatures and ask voters to help them make the May 2021 City election a referendum on change.

One petition drive takes aim at the San Antonio police union and contract provisions that keep bad cops on the force. Another petition drive seeks to “decapitate” CPS Energy’s board of trustees and make the energy utility a department at City Hall.

Two women won seats on the insular Bexar County Commissioners Court, succeeding longtime male incumbents. VIA Metropolitan Transit trustees, long complacent in the shadow of the board chairperson, are openly rebelling against the time-honored tradition of the mayor and county judge deciding who sits in that chair.

As more young people get civically engaged, and protest and change initiatives roll through cities across the country, an inflection point seems at hand in San Antonio and Bexar County. More and more people are pushing for reform and greater transparency, even if the process results in upheaval.

Everywhere one turns, it seems, the status quo is being challenged.

If you want to better understand the growing public frustration I see building in the city and county toward local government and those who occupy positions of power, look no further than the VIA Metropolitan Transit Board of Trustees special meeting held Friday at noon.

I attended all five minutes of the open meeting on Zoom. Chair Hope Andrade finished roll call and then acknowledged there were no Citizens to be Heard. Anyone interested in addressing trustees and VIA’s leaders had all of one hour between 9 and 10 a.m. Friday to register.

No one did. Few ever do beyond the handful of usual suspects who speak at many public meetings. Many citizens realize the real decisions are made outside such public meetings, and they feel powerless to influence the process.

Andrade then closed the public meeting so trustees could go into executive session for a performance and compensation review for CEO Jeff Arndt. Ninety minutes later, they emerged to quickly approve a new three-year contract. There was no public discussion or explanation of the decision or sharing of the contract details.

A campaign sign displays support for Proposition A, a measure to fund VIA expansion with sales tax revenue.
A campaign sign displays support for Proposition A, a measure to fund VIA expansion with sales tax revenue, which ultimately passed in November. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I am one who believes Arndt has done a very good job during his time in San Antonio and deserves a new contract with competitive pay, but is this public government in the service of taxpayers?

I couldn’t help wonder if trustees would also discuss how to handle a challenge of the mayor and county judge’s prerogative to appoint the chair. That’s how Andrade got the appointed position the first time and again the second time after former City Councilman Rey Saldaña, also chosen by fiat, resigned after accepting a Washington, D.C.-based job leading Communities in Schools.

VIA trustees still have hard feelings about Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s initial opposition to a November ballot initiative awarding VIA a one-eighth-cent sales tax to increase its budget. VIA is underfunded compared to other major Texas cities. Nirenberg and VIA’s leaders eventually negotiated a compromise, the initiative was placed on the ballot, and it passed with flying colors.

San Antonio Report Reporter Jackie Wang’s article on the trustee discontent was published on our site Tuesday.

CPS Energy vs. Recall CPS

There is also considerable tension between CPS Energy’s leadership and its board of trustees, environmental groups Sierra Club and Public Citizen, and MOVE Texas over a range of issues, including how trustees are self-appointed by the board, operational transparency, the timing of the closure of a coal-fired plant, and the utility’s response to climate change.

The activists united under the Recall CPS banner.

Talks between the two sides have broken down, which you can read about in this Nov. 19 article by Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons.

Closure of the Spruce coal plant is arguably the central issue of contention. The City of San Antonio has committed to ending fossil fuel-generated energy by 2050 as part of the climate action and adaptation plan it approved in October 2019. CPS Energy, however, is not bound by that vote.

“The issue of climate change and clean air is a worldwide issue, and while much progress has been made, we believe it is currently unclear when in the future technologies will progress and mature to the point that renewable energy can be relied upon for all our electricity needs,” CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams wrote in an op-ed published here days before City Council’s vote.

Recall CPS launched a petition drive in August that aims to bring matters to voters in May. They want the coal plant closed by 2030 and fundamental changes made to governance and how rates are set.

The prospect of Recall CPS succeeding has establishment leaders fearful the high performing municipal energy utility, recognized nationally for its environmentalism and stable rates, would be governed by politicians with no sector expertise. CPS Energy currently provides 14 percent of its revenues to the City, a payment that now exceeds $300 million a year.

Trey Jacobson, a private business consultant who served as the former chief of staff to Nirenberg, called the petition drive “an assault on the San Antonio [city] charter” in a commentary published here in September. He compared the initiative to the populist campaign conducted by the San Antonio firefighters union in 2018.

You can read an opposing commentary by Public Citizen’s Deedee Belmares published here in November on behalf of Recall CPS.

San Antonio police union vs. Fix SAPD

Finally, as Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick detailed in a June 10 article, FIX SAPD continues to gather signatures in its petition drive to place an initiative on the same May ballot that would dismantle the San Antonio police union and eliminate the collective bargaining processes that allow bad cops to remain on the force.

“There are protections that have been built in [the local and state systems] … that tip the scales from a disciplinary standpoint” in favor of the police union, City Manager Erik Walsh told City Council during a meeting last summer.

Organizers are pessimistic the contract talks will yield real change, and they worry that Nirenberg and other City officials will not hold fast to reform commitments made in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the year.

In all cases, grassroots movements driven by younger, idealistic organizers are accelerating and threaten to disrupt the status quo unless those who hold power agree to significant change. Energized next-generation leaders are impatient to see local government and institutions become more responsive, more accountable to the public, and more transparent in their internal operations. They look at the world around them, particularly the pressing issues of police reform and climate change action, and they find those holding power to be moving in slow motion.

Without compromise, more government by petition is on the near horizon.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.