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Range of city charter proposals include council raises and uncapped city manager pay

Members of the San Antonio Charter Review Commission listen to a presentation from one of the commission's subcommittees.
Josh Peck
Members of the San Antonio Charter Review Commission listen to a presentation from one of the commission's subcommittees.

The commission charged with reviewing potential changes to the San Antonio City Charter may recommend new salaries for city council members and the mayor of $80,000 and $95,000, respectively, with potential annual raises tied to the salaries of other city employees.

City council member salaries are currently set at $45,722, while the mayor’s salary is $61,725.

Any recommendation the Charter Review Commission makes will have to be approved by the city council in the summer and voters in the fall. The full commission won’t approve any of the current proposals until late May, and final proposals may still change.

Salaries and term lengths

The subcommittee dealing with council and mayoral compensation said the salaries should be indexed so that council members and the mayor would receive the same percentage raise that civilian city employees get in a given year.

The council and mayor wouldn’t receive raises if city employees didn’t.

The subcommittee also recommended that the new salaries not go into effect until after the next municipal election.

City council used to be like a part-time job where council members were paid $20 per week — and the mayor was paid slightly more — before voters approved salaries for the positions in 2015. The $45,722 council salary represented the area median income of San Antonio at the time.

The subcommittee’s chair Luisa Casso said they arrived at the $80,000 salary for city council based on the 2023 median salary for management and professional occupations in the San Antonio and New Braunfels area, which was $81,763.

The subcommittee’s preliminary recommendations in March were for salaries up to $120,000 for council members and up to $140,000 for the mayor. Casso said they took public disapproval of those initial recommendations seriously.

“Making a jump from $45,000 to $120,000 was not feasible, and it was not prudent,” she said.

District 8 Councilmember Manny Pelaez, who is running for mayor next year, came out strongly against raises for council and the mayor in an early March op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News.

He wrote that the preliminary recommendations were “misguided” and said any raise should be rejected.

District 9 Councilman John Courage announcing his bid for San Antonio mayor.
Josh Peck
District 9 Councilman John Courage announcing his bid for San Antonio mayor.

District 9 Councilmember John Courage, who has also announced his mayoral candidacy, spoke to the commission at a March 4 Charter Review Commission public comment session.

He said salaries should not go as high as the initial recommendations, but that current salaries are outdated.

“Council pay right now is based on an arbitrary figure that was set almost 10 years ago,” Courage said. “That doesn’t seem practical. I think we should look at the average family income in the city of San Antonio, which right now is right around $60,000 a year, and that should be what council members are paid.”

Courage said the mayor should be paid slightly more because of the additional work they do representing the city at the state and federal levels.

Some proponents of pay raises for council members, like District 2 Councilmember Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, said a low salary prohibits residents who are not already wealthy from running for office.

“In order to get more regular everyday people, this has to be the kind of job where you can be a young person ready to start a family, you could be a hospitality worker, you could be doing something else and still be able to provide for yourself and your family,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “And right now, it’s not that.”

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez speaking in front of City Hall in support of the Justice Charter. He's holding a mic and standing in front of boxes of signed petitions, and behind him are supporters wearing Justice Charter and Party for Socialism and Liberation shirts and holding signs supporting the Justice Charter.
Josh Peck
District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez speaking in support of the San Antonio Justice Charter in front of City Hall.

McKee-Rodriguez suggested a proposal similar to Courage’s — that council pay be indexed to living costs or area incomes.

The subcommittee is also tasked with considering whether to change the council’s term lengths. Currently, all city council districts and the mayor have elections on the same day in May every two years, for a maximum of four terms.

The subcommittee recommended that council terms be changed to two four-year terms. It also recommended no changes to the election cycles.

Staff from the city attorney’s office said if the commission went forward with the four-year term recommendation, they would create an exception for members currently serving their first or third term so that it would be possible for voters to return them to office for the same eight-year maximum all other members can get.

City manager salary and term limits

The commission’s subcommittee dealing with potential changes to the city manager role proposed eliminating salary and term caps for the city manager six years after voters imposed both.

Subcommittee Chair Pat Frost said they found that similar salary and term restrictions are not present in other comparable cities. Front added that the city council should have the right to make decisions about the city manager role.

The 2018 charter amendment spearheaded by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association during bitter contract negotiations with then-San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley capped the city manager’s salary at no greater than 10 times the salary of the lowest-paid full-time city employee. It also imposed an eight year-term limit on the position.

Sculley’s salary at the time was $475,000, with up to a $100,000 bonus.

Some community members pushed back against the proposals at public comment sessions, arguing the city manager already has a very generous salary.

In Fiscal Year 2022, current City Manager Erik Walsh’s base salary was $339,532.80.

San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh and Mayor Ron Nirenberg speak to members of the press corps after Thursday's city council vote on the 2023 budget.
Joey Palacios
San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Some said if the city really wants to pay the city manager more, they should give a raise to the lowest-paid full-time city employee the city manager’s salary is pegged to.

Walsh would have to leave the city manager’s office in 2027 under the current charter provision.

City council districts and redistricting

One of the subcommittees handling potential changes to city council in the city charter recommended adding no new city council districts to the 10 districts currently in San Antonio and creating a hybrid redistricting commission.

Frank Garza, the subcommittee’s chair, said the council should consider adding new districts every 10 years after the U.S. Census, but that it would not be required under their proposal.

“We believe at this time, the projected population growth and the ability of the current council members to respond to the needs of their constituents does not justify an increase in the number of council districts,” he said.

Voters first established 10 district seats in 1977, when the city had a population of fewer than 800,000 people.

The city is now home to nearly 1.5 million people.

Garza said his subcommittee also recommended against creating a fully independent redistricting commission to handle the city council redistricting process, which would take place after the Census and any time additional council districts were added.

“We believe the ultimate decision on the redistricting needs to be done by the representatives, so we did not want to take that authority away from the city council,” Garza said.

Instead, they proposed a hybrid commission that mimicked how the most recent redistricting commission functioned.

After eight months of committee meetings, San Antonio has new boundaries for its city council districts. The San Antonio City Council gave final approval on Thursday in a 10-0 vote.

In this model, each member of the city council and the mayor would appoint a member to the redistricting commission. That commission would bring a redistricting plan to the council, which the council would only have the authority to approve or reject.

If the city council wanted to make changes to the redistricting plan, they would need to make a formal request to the redistricting commission. The commission would then decide what plan to bring back to the council for another vote, so that any plan put before the council was approved by the redistricting commission.

Garza said the most recent redistricting commission that functioned this way was set up through a city ordinance — which a city council could vote to change. But if that language is placed in the city charter, as he proposed they do, the city council could not change the policy on a whim.

Under the proposal, the city council could only make changes to the redistricting plan without the redistricting commission’s approval if nine members agreed.

The subcommittee also recommended prohibiting family members and employees of city council members from serving on the redistricting commission. It would also require any attempts by council members or the mayor to lobby redistricting commission members to occur in open meetings or in open memos to the entire commission.

The most recent redistricting commission included both a city council member’s family member and employee.

That restriction would not apply to neighborhood associations under the subcommittee’s recommendations.

Lobbyists would also only be allowed to lobby redistricting commission members at open meetings.

Charter language modernization

The language modernization subcommittee proposed dozens of small edits to the language of the city charter to make it gender inclusive, to eliminate old phrases of English that are now out of use, and to align outdated language to current processes.

Nirenberg also asked the subcommittee to review how the so-called three signature special meeting memo should function. The memo allows three members of the city council to force a discussion and vote on an item in a special meeting, which are otherwise only called by the mayor or city manager.

San Antonio's city council meeting was forced into executive session after about ten minutes of disruption from protestors.
Joey Palacios
San Antonio's city council meeting was forced into executive session after about ten minutes of disruption from protestors.

Nirenberg asked the subcommittee to review the three-signature memo after he first established the Charter Review Commission, and after McKee-Rodriguez, District 5 Councilmember Teri Castillo, and Pelaez attempted to use the memo in January to force a vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza. Pelaez backed out of his support for the memo weeks after he signed it, and the resolution never came to council for a vote.

The subcommittee initially recommended restrictions on how the three-signature memo could be used. But after residents spoke against the move at public comment sessions, the subcommittee returned in April and said they would be recommending no changes to the three-signature memo process.

Ethics officer and other ethics revisions

The commission was also tasked with creating a subcommittee to review whether the city should establish an entirely independent ethics officer position with a legal background, how the San Antonio Ethics Review Board should function, and other ethics policies.

Subcommittee Chair Mike Frisbie said a new position is unnecessary.

“Right now, that position within the audit department strikes a balance of being collaborative with all of the departments, all of the elected officials, with training and preventative areas for ethics concerns,” Frisbie said. “Striking that balance is important for the collaboration and the education to happen. There’s independence there, but there’s collaboration there as well.”

He also said there was no strong benefit for the city ethics auditor to have a legal background.

Mike Frisbie, the chair of the Charter Review Commission subcommittee on potential ethics changes in the city charter.
Josh Peck
Mike Frisbie, the chair of the Charter Review Commission subcommittee on potential ethics changes in the city charter.

Frisbie said his subcommittee was proposing several other recommendations to strengthen the city’s ethics practices.

They recommended that the Ethics Review Board not be changed because it already has a high level of autonomy and the power to compel testimony.

The Ethics Review Board was first established in 1998, and voters in 2004 gave it the authority in the city charter to enforce and sanction violations of the City Code relating to ethics, lobbying, and municipal campaign finance. It also educates members of the city staff and city council about the rules it enforces. Its 11 members are appointed by the city council and mayor. They can only be removed with cause or when their term ends.

Frisbie also said the charter should include a statement that describes the city’s broad principles regarding conflicts of interest.

Final proposals from the full Charter Review Commission will be delivered on May 6 and May 9. Final discussions and actions on those proposals will take place on May 20 and May 23. The city council will then decide in the summer what to send to voters in the fall.

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