SAN ANTONIO – With four new members joining the dais Monday, the San Antonio City Council is getting a shakeup ahead of what promises to be a busy year.
The city is about to enter its budget process with a trial budget presentation Wednesday that should offer an indication on how the city plans to put nearly $466 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to work. A new 5-year bond program is also on the horizon, which could offer council members the opportunity to fund big projects in their district. To top it off, the city is in the midst of negotiating a closely watched contract with the police union.
There are a host of other issues, too. Here’s a brief look at what all 11 members of the council are focused on this year.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg
After a year’s worth of nightly briefings during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Ron Nirenberg is perhaps one of the most recognizable people in the city, which helped him to handily win a third term — even against 13 challengers.
Economic recovery and getting the community back on its feet following the pandemic is the biggest issue for the city this year, he said. Then there’s taking advantage of a “generational opportunity” with federal recovery funds, a “very likely” federal jobs plan, and city and county collaboration on capital programs.
“Number one, getting folks back to work, but, in particular, ensuring the success of our workforce training programs and renewed access to education,” Nirenberg said. “We are going to stage some significant strategic investments in our transportation system to create a bona fide multi-modal transportation system, investments in public health that includes public health infrastructure, like our parks and creekway trails system. Those are, to me, top of the list.”
D1 - Mario Bravo
Bravo, one of the new members on the city council, is a project manager on the energy team for the Environmental Defense Fund. He unseated Roberto Trevino in a Jun. 5 runoff.
Property tax relief for the most vulnerable residents, prioritizing tax dollars for neighborhoods, and possibly creating an independent oversight department to look at police use-of-force complaints are among the big issues he says he’s focused on.
With the 2022 Bond Program around the corner, Bravo hopes affordable housing projects -- which will be newly permissible for this bond -- will be included.
“I want to make sure that anything that we do -- that’s actually making a difference and allowing people who have very low income to be able to get into some kind of housing. And so I’m looking for transparency and accountability and any programs that we support,” he said.
D2 - Jalen McKee-Rodriguez
Though he was most recently a high school math teacher, McKee-Rodriguez also worked on the council staff of his predecessor, Jada Andrews-Sullivan, whom he defeated in the Jun. 5 runoff election. He is also the first openly gay man to serve on the council.
Getting the most for District 2 in the upcoming budget session, maintaining a strong, responsive field office, and ensuring the new police contract has strong accountability measures are among his priorities.
He also plans to push during the budget process for the establishment of an Office of Civil Rights to “streamline” the current non-discrimination ordinance process and the complaints and reporting happening.
“We’ve seen that areas and cities that do have successful nondiscrimination ordinances, they have they utilize offices like that and a coordinator,” McKee Rodriguez said.
D3 - Phyllis Viagran
Viagran will take over the seat of her sister, Rebecca Viagran, on the dais after the latter was forced to leave city council because of term limits.
Phyllis Viagran has held a variety of jobs, including as a civilian employee with the San Antonio Police Department, but most recently worked part-time for Senior Planet.
She believes the budget process and spending the ARPA money “thoughtfully using the equity lens” will be one of the big issues for the upcoming year.
Though she’s taking over for her sister, Phyllis Viagran says they have different styles, and their situations are “apples and oranges” given the different issues they faced coming in.
“We’re looking at a limited budget. We’re looking at a travel and tourism industry that needs to be revived. So the priorities are going to be different,” Viagran said.
D4 - Adriana Rocha Garcia
Though only entering her second term, the District 4 councilwoman will be the senior council member among the southern five districts. Rocha Garcia has a Ph.D. in advertising and has a background in communications and marketing, the latter of which she teaches at Our Lady of the Lake University.
She expects economic development and workforce development will be big issues in the next year for her district.
“So a lot of our folks worked in the service industry -- so making sure that they still have available jobs or that they’re going through, like, for instance, our Ready To Work program so that they could train up. So that’s going to be huge,” Rocha Garcia said.
There’s also an opportunity, she says, to build up green spaces in her South Side district, specifically trails, and “connect all of that.”
D5 - Teri Castillo
A political newcomer, Castillo has been a substitute teacher and community organizer for housing affordability and health care. She is taking the spot of Shirley Gonzales, who was forced out by term limits.
Bringing money for infrastructure to her West Side district where “every other block....needs some type of improvement, whether its drainage, sidewalks or streets” is a top priority for her.
Castillo also says the district has seen a lot of “predatory real estate practices,” and she wants to prioritize “risk mitigation efforts to ensure that folks who want to stay in their home can.”
Her district is unique, she said, in that there is a high percentage of homeownership, in spite of a high rate of poverty.
“So we have the opportunity and duty to come and be innovative when it comes to housing and deeply affordable, permanently affordable, housing in District 5 by activating those city-owned vacant lots to create permanently affordable housing.”
D6 - Melissa Cabello Havrda
A disability attorney by trade, Cabello Havrda is entering her second term.
Known for her to-the-point questions during council sessions, Cabello Havrda says she is focused on public safety and transportation, which she says “are not issues that ever go away.”
“When I say transportation, I’m not talking just cars, but of course, we’re talking bike lanes, pedestrians and bus system -- you know, all the ways that San Antonians get around. We need to expand that. We need to provide more opportunity there,” she said.
Cabello Havrda is currently the chairwoman of the public safety committee and says she looks forward to the next two years “being action.”
“I’ve done a lot of listening and meeting, and really think that this next year for me is going to be about a plan, about action,” she said.
D7 - Ana Sandoval
The third-term councilwoman previously worked in public health but is now a “full-time” council member. She will also teach urban politics at St. Mary’s University in the fall.
Bolstering public health is a top priority for her. Sandoval said the ARPA funding offers a “once in a generation opportunity -- even once in a lifetime.”
“Some of that is dedicated to health issues, including health disparities. So that means we have a lot more flexibility to deal with issues here locally that have been unaddressed for a very long time,” Sandoval said, noting that local money will need to be found to continue funding any long-term health initiatives once the federal dollars are gone.
Moving ahead with the climate action plan and sustainability issues are also forefront on her mind as is the impending bond program.
D8 - Manny Pelaez
An attorney entering his third term representing his Northwest Side district, Pelaez is known as one of the most outspoken members of the council.
The big issue for the city this year, as he sees it, is resilience. The city has been tested in numerous ways, whether through the pandemic and the winter freeze.
“We have in the past focused a lot on some things that probably aren’t as important as issues of survival, right? And if ever there was a time to really take resilience seriously, it’s now,” he said.
That means hardening the city’s cyber-security and utilities, he said, but also preparing to withstand “chronic stressors that face the city: traffic, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse.”
D9 - John Courage
Now on his third term, Courage is a self-proclaimed independent representing a conservative district. However, the retired teacher’s focus on constituent services has been a calling card, which seems to have helped him return to the dais.
He’s anxious to reach a new contract agreement with the police union, which he believes is still one of the top issues for the city. Getting through the pandemic and using federal dollars to help patch budget holes are also big issues for him.
Courage also hopes that housing “can be a factor in that bond issue so that the city can become a greater partner in a lot of the new housing projects that go forward so that we can, as a partner, offer lower financial investment than outside investors are putting in, which I think will help us make those projects more affordable.”
D10 - Clayton Perry
A retired Air Force Officer who also worked in project management and construction, Perry is another council member beginning his third term.
Known for being the token conservative on an otherwise left-of-center council, Perry says he plans to focus on the same three things he has since 2017: “safety and security, property taxes, and infrastructure.”