Many San Antonio residents may not be aware that San Antonio is a home rule city, a political subdivision, a municipality within the state of Texas in which citizens have adopted a home rule charter, the official document that governs the city’s government structure, distribution of powers, and duties as well as a code of ordinances. The city’s charter is to the city government what the U.S. Constitution is the federal government. Unlike the federal government where a constitutional change is a difficult undertaking that involves all the states, the city’s charter can be amended much more easily requiring the approval by vote of the people of San Antonio. However a two year waiting period is imposed between charter elections before amendments can be put before the voters for approval.
A Charter Review Commission was established in 2014 with members appointed by the Mayor. It was designed to be a “standing body that would consider many issues”, according to Mayor Taylor. The commission’s purpose is to recommend charter amendments to the city council. According to Assistant City Manager John Peterek during a presentation before the committee on May 24th, there have been nine charter elections and many changes have been initiated including the removal of outdated and superseded language since the charter was created in 1951. The most recent amendments were adopted in 2015. There are 13 members on the committee with two former council members, private citizens, and a councilman, Mike Gallagher of District 10, who has just stepped down.
The committee has met six times, between December 13, 2016 and June 14th this year. All meetings have been open to the public and the last three meetings were open to public input (citizens to be heard forums). The original recommendations for charter amendments according to the chairman of the committee, former Councilman Jeff Webster, came from members of the city council. However, commission members clarified in the meetings that the recommendations from the public presented before the commission would be reviewed by them. Commissioner Francisco Garza stated in the May 24th meeting that citizens have a right to petition that recommendations be put on the ballot. However the City Council has the last say when they meet in August to discuss the recommendations of the charter review commission AND the council decides whether to accept any recommendations at all or some and whether or not a charter election will be held.
Another significant detail mentioned by committee chair Webster was the process between now in July and August which entails the formation of sub-committees to review charter amendments, specifically, planning committee representation, ethics review board issues, changes in the form of government, term limits, elections dates and funding housing bonds.
During the three public forums with recommendations presented by private citizens, there was a considerable number of responses to the original recommendations of the city council members which focused on five areas:
- Changing council terms and election dates
- Changes in the representation of Planning Commission members
- Changes related to the Ethics Review Board
- Modifying current restrictions on funding housing bonds
- Changing filing requirements for establishing candidates’ residency
Recommendations by the speakers at the public forums were diverse and mostly well thought out and articulated. Mr. Joe Krier, who recently stepped down as city councilman for District 9, asked for consideration of a charter amendment that would require the city council to publicly disclose any lawsuits planned by the city against other government entities. He stated that the council voted in secret executive session to sue the state of Texas for the first time in history over the Senate Bill 4 bill (Sanctuary City law) signed by Governor Abbott.
Councilman Krier stated, “Transparency is the motto of city government for the last decade”. A charter amendment is needed so that “anytime we sue a governmental entity, we should do so pursuant to a public posting and vote of the entire council and make the citizens’ voices heard and see what their councilman voted for”. The City Attorney attended the same meeting on June 7th and spoke out against an amendment because when “you sue, strategically and tactically, you want to keep secret” the city’s position and seeking approval would delay the legal challenge and need for swift action. Councilman Mike Gallagher weighed in on the issue and said that he has spoken out against secrecy in city decisions and the people should have a say in such matters (which outweighs the arguments put forth by the city attorney).
A number of students and young adults associated with MoveOn San Antonio, a grassroots mobilization organization, spoke out at the public forums on the same issues, recommending the transfer of the city elections from May to November of odd years to increase student voter turnout and a change in planning committee appointments to require the inclusion of representatives for all districts. The other common charter change suggested by this group was to extend council terms to four years instead of two and the recommendation that the voting age for municipal elections should be lowered to 16.
There were a number of non-profit organizations represented who work within the affordable housing sector who spoke for a charter change to remove restrictions which currently are in place on public funding for housing.
In reviewing the serious proposals presented by citizens at the public hearings, several recommendations stood out. Mr. Stan Mitchell, representing the San Antonio Making Bureaucracies Accountable (SAMBA) watchdog group, proposed a Financial Transparency Act to require city officials to disclose all financial costs pertaining to capital projects and bond proposals. He mentioned that the recent $850 million bond program approved by the voters in the June 10th election did not include over $464 million in bond expense and interest costs. He estimated the true cost of the city bond was closer to $1.3 billion in new debt that the residents of San Antonio would be saddled with and expressed his frustration that the city’s Chief Financial Officer has been unresponsive to legitimate and lawful requests for full accounting of the bond costs.
Mr. Mitchell recommended a charter amendment: “The Financial Transparency Act – No capital project or bond proposal may be submitted to the Mayor, City Council or a bureaucratic supervisory body for consideration without a comprehensive disclosure of the anticipated cost of capital. All assumptions and forecasts used in the development of the cost of capital will be identified. Representations of the costs of the capital project or bond proposal to the citizens of San Antonio will always include the cost of capital.”
There were other similar proposals for greater transparency, accountability, and accurate financial disclosure heard from the floor. Another common concern expressed was an appeal to update the threshold of signatures required in the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall section of the charter which currently requires validated petition signatures amounting to 10% of qualified voters. Currently that translates to 75,000 validated signatures that would need to be collected within 40 days before a special initiative, referendum, or recall election can be called, a near impossible task. A number of speakers spoke emphatically about the necessity of reducing the threshold to a reasonable level, such as 15% or 20% of voters in the last mayoral election and an extended time of 90 days to gather signed petitions, to ensure that the people have the power to call a referendum, an initiative or a recall to remove a member of the council including the Mayor. In the words of one speaker, Pastor Gerald Ripley, “Making these amendments will get the city charter back into alignment with the intent and spirit of including referendum, initiative, and recall in our governing documents”.
Another substantive issue addressed by former City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo, recent District Council candidate (D9) Patrick Von Dohlen, Ms. Betty Eckert, and Ms. Coleen Taylor was about ethics reform. Ms Guajardo recommended a charter change with regards to proof of residency when candidates file their application to run for office. She commented that the burden of proof should be on the candidate and not the city clerk’s office. All candidates must be required to provide three widely accepted documents proving residency. She also recommended changes in the practice of the ethics review board which should impose penalties if a city employee is found guilty of ethical violations, especially campaign-related violations.
Mr. Von Dohlen and Ms. Eckert proposed that city employees including employees of the public utilities should be disqualified from holding any positions on boards and committees, in Mr. Von Dohlen’s words, to avoid nepotism and cronyism while increasing private citizen engagement. Ms. Colleen Taylor from the Northside Neighborhood for Organized Development called for a change in the ethics review board which should be totally independent of the Mayor, City Council, and City Manager and, additionally, the city should have an independent auditor.
To summarize the excellent proposals offered by the citizens of San Antonio who spoke out at the three public forums, our readers should consider these key points in their discussions when speaking to the new mayor and council representatives. The city’s residents will be well-served if these improvements can be made to the City Charter:
- Require accurate cost accounting and timely public disclosure of capital projects and bond proposals in the interest of transparency and accountability
- Reduce Recall, Initiative, and Referendum Petition Thresholds to a reasonable level
- Ensure equal representation of all districts in the City Planning commission
- Safeguard ethical standards in city government by creating an independent ethics board and independent auditor; revise candidate residency requirements in accord with the laws of the state.
- Require prior public disclosure of the city’s intent to sue other government jurisdictions
Charter Amendment Timeline
July – August: Charter Review Commission and subcommittees will continue to meet (See City website for details)
August 2nd: City Council session presentation on proposed amendments
August 17th: City Council adopt proposed amendments
November 7th: Special election day for Charter Amendments (Subject to approval of City Council)
What can you do as a citizen and resident of San Antonio?
- Contact the Mayor and your city council representative before August to express your views (City Council Contact List)
- Be involved in charter review committee meetings and city council deliberations of charter changes (Meetings are open to the public)
- Be an informed voter if and when the city charter amendments are on the ballot in a special election in November
- Inform your family, friends, and circle of influence and encourage them to get involved
The Alamo Torch will continue to give you, our readers, updates over the next few months concerning these important city charter amendments.