San Antonio City Council passes new code of conduct; questions raised about enforcement

New code passes 8-2; comes on heels of third official reprimand of a council member in the past 15 months

SAN ANTONIO – After arguing whether it was a “slippery slope” or a hill that’s always been there, the San Antonio City Council passed a new code of conduct Thursday.

Less than three weeks after issuing its third formal reprimand to a council member in the past 15 months, the council voted 8-2 to adopt the measure. However, it’s debatable if the code would even apply to all three incidents, and the enforcement measures included in the code are all largely symbolic.

The four-page ordinance largely lays out expectations for following city administrative directives, council members’ interactions with each other and staff, and the disclosure of any romantic relationships with district or city staff members.

The code states council members “shall refrain from derogatory or harassing remarks of images” and “should avoid discussion of personalities and profane language, and refrain from personal attacks, verbal abuse or language that explicitly or implicitly threatens physical harm toward another person.”

After voicing concerns about the code being used as a political weapon, Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) voted against it.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) was absent from Thursday’s meeting, though he told KSAT on Wednesday he opposed the idea.

Castillo said the council was creating a “slippery slope” and said some of the language was “vague” and caused her concern about censorship.

She also pointed to examples of how “censure has been used to challenge those who challenge the status quo,” including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) being pulled from the Foreign Affairs Committee over anti-Israel comments, an Oklahoma state representative who let a protestor into her office, a transgender Montana state representative who was barred from the Montana House floor, and even U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzalez’s (R-TX) censure by his own party.

“So when I see these examples and how it’s up for interpretation, it’s often minorities and women of color who are reprimanded for not going to get along, it’s a bit concerning,” Castillo said.

McKee-Rodriguez is known for his often snarky responses to critics and unfiltered opinions online, including a recent post on X, formerly Twitter, in which he referred to Pelaez pulling his support from a cease-fire resolution on the Israel-Hamas war as “one of the weakest moves I’ve ever seen from any councilmember ever” and said “anyone but Manny for Mayor.”

“My commitment is that I’m going to continue doing everything I’ve been doing. And you can stay peeping my Twitter for spicy tweets,” he said during the council’s discussion.

He followed through later Thursday by re-posting a meme of Pelaez as a “missing” person on a milk carton.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, though, said he was “perplexed” by the conversation and said the code creates no new expectations or authority.

“Codes of conduct, visible or not, are not guardrails for us to crash into and test where there are expectations that we have as members of the public,” Nirenberg said. " So what I would say is, regardless of whether or not they’re written, we have them. And what we’re doing by adopting the code is creating a public facing document so there’s - they can understand - folks can understand - how we do this.”

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) has pushed for the creation of a code of conduct, telling KSAT that when she was chair of the City of San Antonio’s Ethics Review Board prior to her election, she had noticed “there was some level of unprofessionalism happening at the dais.”

The new code of conduct defines a process that “was never defined before,” she said, and lays out how a complaint could be filed and how it would be investigated.

Ultimately, enforcement would fall to the council members themselves, who have only three symbolic options: a written letter of reprimand, official censure, or a call for resignation.

The code also reiterates part of the city charter that allows the city council to eject one of its members from a meeting for disorderly conduct.

Council members can not be force another member completely out of office unless they cease “to possess the required qualifications for office; or who is convicted, while in office, of a felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.”

1 FOR 3?

In the past 15 months, council members have issued some degree of official reprimand to three of their colleagues: former District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo in November 2022, former District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry the same week, and current District 10 Councilman Marc Whyte on Jan. 14.

In each case, Nirenberg also removed the council member from his committee assignments - a punishment that is not addressed by the new code of conduct.

Bravo was censured and given a vote of no-confidence over a confrontation he had with former District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval in council chambers ahead of the FY 2023 budget vote.

He was in the audience for the meeting and urged his former colleagues to “question how this proposal is currently written.”

Though Bravo said he agreed council should have a high standard of conduct, he didn’t believe there were enough protections included for the accused council member. The punishments amount to public shaming, which he argued didn’t change behavior. He also questioned the need for what he called a “second legal trial system.”

“I wonder why has this council lost trust in the voters to handle this? Can the voters themselves not determine when to call for their representative’s resignation, or when to collect signatures for a recall election?” he asked during the public comment session.

Perry and Whyte were given a vote of no-confidence and censured, respectively, for alleged drunk driving incidents. Perry eventually pleaded no contest to DWI and hit-and-run charges, while Whyte’s DWI case is ongoing.

However, it is up for debate whether either Perry or Whyte’s incidents would be covered under the new code of conduct.

Asked whether the code would cover a drug or alcohol violation outside of city business, such as a DWI charge, City Attorney Andy Segovia’s response boiled down to “it depends.”

“I would say it can be, again, depending on the facts and circumstances,” Segovia told council members. “And frankly, though, it’s up to the council as to whether it would apply or not, because, again, these rules are rules that the council is deciding they’re going to live up to, and it will be ultimately up to the council as to what behavior is covered and which one is not.”

Whyte’s interpretation was that the ordinance would not apply to his case. He ultimately voted for the code of conduct, he said, because it was about council members’ interactions with each other or staff.

“My understanding is that in the past, there’s been some interactions between council members that have been less than professional, and we wanted to, I guess, police ourselves on that. And if this helps us to be a more professional city council, I’m certainly for it,” he said.


About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.

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