There is a sharp learning curve for most San Antonio City Council members when they first take their seats at the dais. On top of learning the ropes of a nearly $3 billion municipal organization, Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda’s first term as the District 6 representative has so far been spent learning how to cope with a pandemic and historic civil unrest.

“You always think you know what you’re getting in to … but I really didn’t,” Havrda said during a livestreamed conversation with San Antonio Report senior reporter Iris Dimmick on Thursday. “We had no idea that we were going to be dealing with these very big, global issues – not just with the pandemic but the urgency of racial justice issues.”

She has transitioned from her life as a private attorney into a very public role by learning several lessons, but top among them has been simply to listen.

In June, while City Council members were discussing cuts to the City’s 2020 budget in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, several residents aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement – who felt unheard – started interrupting the meeting. Mayor Ron Nirenberg was able to settle the crowd for a moment, but it just so happened that Havrda was up next to speak. The activists did not like what they heard her say and were frustrated with the procedural rules of the meeting.

“Everybody was just very charged,” she said. “I was trying to express support” for what they were asking for: meaningful changes in the budget and the role of police officers in public safety.

“It was such a pivotal moment for me,” she said. “We got into a little bit of a scrape because I was trying to defend myself.”

Since then she’s met weekly and monthly with BLM organizers to hear their concerns.

“As much as I feel I am a total San [Antonian], there is a lot I don’t know about this city. I move around this city as a Latina, I do not move around this city as a Black person. So I had to understand that as much as I could.”

She’s also not a police officer. Cabello Havrda has held meetings with law enforcement to hear from that community as well.

Looking back, if she was in charge of that meeting, she said, “I would have been like, ‘Everybody shut up. Let’s just let [the residents] come up to the dais.’ That’s what we should have done. … Since then, I have just gone with my gut. These are people in our community that want to talk to us. We can’t make them wait.”

As chair of Council’s Public Safety Committee, Havrda was able to host more public input meetings, or “listening sessions,” in the following weeks.

That committee will oversee the comprehensive review of San Antonio Police Department policies and responsibilities to see what functions could be better handled elsewhere or what public services could reduce crime without the use of a gun or a badge. City Manager Erik Walsh expects a full report on a new model for providing public safety and support for residents in April.

That work largely hasn’t started yet, Havrda said, but she expects there will be a large public input component.

The latest Bexar Facts/KSAT/SA Report poll, a local, independent survey that uses scientific methodologies, found that 76 percent of voters surveyed said the police department should not be “defunded,” but voters are more split on the issue when asked in the context of reallocating SAPD funding to other programs such as mental health and substance abuse treatment: 51 percent of respondents approved of that idea.

That data tracks with what Havrda said she has been hearing from her constituents.

In the same vein of listening and promoting transparency, the councilwoman has filed a request for City Council to consider establishing a “community message board” system similar to one set up in Austin.

The online system allows Council to ask City staff questions regarding policies or research and displays both the question and answer in a public forum.

The intent is to allow the public to see what kind of information Council is formally requesting.

Outside of pandemic and police reform efforts, District 6 has its own unique challenges, Havrda said.

Some of the fastest growing neighborhoods and commercial areas are located in District 6, which includes much of the city’s far West Side.

“We used to have nothing out there, it was like living out in the country – it was great,” she said. “But if you wanted to go to a restaurant you had to drive” to another part of town.

That space has largely been filled with big-box stores and chain restaurants, she said. “I really want to promote small business … local residents opening a business for themselves.”

She sees the proposed workforce development initiative on the November ballot, Proposition B, as a way to encourage that kind of growth on the West Side. If approved by voters, the one-eighth-cent sales tax would be aimed at getting up to 40,000 residents job training and scholarships.

“They learn a skillset, they grow, and they prosper, and then they’re able to do that on their own – they open up their own shop,” she said. “That would be fantastic.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org