Clear lines were drawn between Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) Monday as the two near the finish line of a tense runoff election on Saturday, June 10. As the long campaign nears an end, the candidates’ exchanges have grown sharper, and the direct mail flyers and other outreach efforts have taken on a more negative tone.
The two met again Monday at high noon, perhaps for the last time face to face in this campaign, for a live broadcast on Texas Public Radio and its program The Source, hosted by David Martin Davies. They didn’t agree on much.
Points of sharp disagreement included how the City should respond to Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott that goes into effect in September. Nirenberg joined a city council majority that agreed to join with other Texas cities in a MALDEF lawsuit against the state to challenge SB4’s constitutionality. Taylor opposed that move.
Nirenberg also has warned that the police contract settlement, which was brokered by Taylor and reached after a long and acrimonious standoff between the City’s negotiating team and union negotiators, will exceed the spending limits previously set by City staff and city council.
The incumbent and challenger also disagree on annexation policies, although the nuances of that disagreement might elude many voters.
Taylor does not see the retention, removal, or modification of Confederate war memorials in San Antonio as a pressing issue. Nirenberg disagrees, and said Monday that it is the mayor’s responsibility to facilitate community dialogue: “There is no discussion happening now,” he said.
“Frankly, I’m more focused on the other critical issues,” Taylor said.
Tuesday is the final day for early voting. Early voting to date has been concentrated on the city’s Northside, a pattern consistent with past municipal elections, according to totals posted by the Bexar County Elections Department. The three Northside suburban districts have been a source of strength for Taylor, although Nirenberg has done well in his home district, too. Only about 13%-15% of registered voters are expected to turn out for the runoff election, which will include runoffs in districts 1 and 2, where incumbents face challengers, and 6, 8, 9, and 10, where vacated council seats mean newcomers will be elected.
The most contentious issue to develop in the closing days of the campaign is how San Antonio should respond to the looming prospect of SB4. While Taylor opposes the new law and the terms it imposes on cities and their law enforcement officers, she disagreed with the majority of Council that directed the City attorney to join in filing a lawsuit against the State last week.
After speaking with the mayors of Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Taylor said she wanted to take a more measured, collaborative approach to opposing the law that allows police officers to question the immigration status of anyone they detain – with or without an arrest. Local and regional enforcement officials, who uniformly opposed the measure, would face punishment for not cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
“We felt we would have more of an impact if we worked together [with other cities] toward a solution and strategy on that,” Taylor said during the live broadcast with TPR‘s Davies and News Director Shelley Kofler.
San Antonio joined the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in the lawsuit. The nonprofit is paying for associated legal fees. The City of Austin joined the lawsuit on Friday, adding Austin-specific claims.
Taylor said it would have been better to wait until after a potential special session of the Texas Legislature, in case the State uses the lawsuit as a reason to pull funding from the City.
“The next step in the democratic system of checks and balances is to do what we are doing,” Nirenberg said. “Frankly, it’s frustrating to listen to the mayor of the seventh largest city in the United States not know what she believes on this issue. She’s trying to speak out of both sides of her mouth on this and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how the legislative process works.”
Abbott has already signed SB 4, and there is no evidence he intends to revisit the matter if he does call for a special session. He has yet to call the special session or outline his priorities.
“A pragmatic approach really is necessary,” Taylor said. “I have a responsibility to all the citizens. I also have a responsibility to be concerned about the other issues we have pending in the Legislature. … I’m not the only one that thinks that way.”
The Alamo Master Plan was awarded $75 million out of the State’s Rainy Day Fund. Taylor has said in closed door meetings that she is concerned that funding would be the target of a line item veto by Abbott in retaliation for the lawsuit, according to sources who have been in those meetings.
“Is that a legitimate concern?” Davies asked the candidates.
“Have you been contacted by the Governor’s Office in any way that would suggest that by San Antonio filing this lawsuit, somehow that would put the Alamo funding in jeopardy?” he asked Taylor later in the interview.
Taylor said no, but that it remains a concern.
“This is not a lawsuit that will cost taxpayer dollars,” Nirenberg said. “There is no reason for us not to be consistent with our position and show some leadership as a city and as a community.”
The candidates also rehashed their positions on public safety spending and the five-year police union contract that was finally completed in September 2016. Nirenberg said the contract falls short of the financial goals set out by City Council when the process began more than three years ago. Some police union members are now paying some healthcare costs for the first time, but the generous salary increases and benefits mean the overall cost of the contract will exceed 66% of the City’s general fund budget in the contract’s fourth year. That 66% is red line set by City staff and the City council to guide negotiators.
“This was an independent mediation [process] when she interjected herself in the middle of it,” Nirenberg said, adding that Taylor strayed from the Council’s decision to challenge the constitutionality of the contract’s 10-year evergreen clause in court, which led to a court-ordered mediation process. The final contract included an eight-year evergreen clause that keeps the terms of the current contract in place for eight years after the contract expires if a new contract isn’t agreed upon.
Taylor, who received an endorsement from the police union last month, said she stepped in only when it became apparent that mediation was not working, in order to “break through the stalemate. … If we had not done that we probably would still be in court.”
As for the contract’s impact on the general fund, Taylor said, the estimates Nirenberg points to assume that the firefighter union, which is also fighting the City in court, will receive the same deal that the police did.
“That hasn’t been negotiated yet,” Taylor said.
Increasing the portion of the general fund for public safety would be “certainly something that we can discuss,” she said, if it meant more community-oriented policing.
Nirenberg said he is less concerned about the actual 66% figure and more concerned with balancing revenues and expenditures, something the new police contract fails to do.
“I’m less interested in wages and benefits than making sure we have a structurally balanced contract that grows as the city grows,” he said.
Both candidates agreed that hiring more police officers should be a top priority. Kofler pointed out that San Antonio Police Department vacancies are double or triple that of the typical 50-70 slots. The department is short 196 officers. San Antonio, it was noted, has one of the lowest officer-per-resident ratios of any major U.S. city.
Annexation has been a hot-button issue at local and state levels for years and the State’s most recent attempt to limit municipal control over the annexation process was effectively killed when State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) filibustered Senate Bill 715.
The measure would have required a vote by homeowners in proposed annexed areas to decide whether cities could start providing services and taxing those residents. Nirenberg supported the bill, but only as long as an amendment to protect military bases from encroaching development was attached. That was stripped from the final version.
“I do support their right to vote,” Nirenberg said.
Taylor was opposed to the legislation, but doesn’t “think we should use [annexation] indiscriminately … It’s a tool that we can’t just use with blunt force.”
Opponents of the bill said residents and businesses outside city limits benefit from infrastructure and public safety needs while avoiding city taxes.
“I find it hard to imagine a scenario where folks would voluntarily annex,” Taylor said.