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Council Postpones Library Vote To Consider Bigger Ethical Issue

Ryan Loyd
Texas Public Radio

The San Antonio City Council followed the lead of District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal Thursday to hold off on a vote about a proposed library branch on the city’s north side.

The 10 members and Mayor Julián Castro initially voted to approve the project at its April 4 meeting, but District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who represents the district where the library is proposed, asked for the item to be brought back to council. This time she recused herself from the process.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley had visited with Chan at her northside business, Unitech, Friday, April 5, after learning the property for the library borders Chan’s firm on East Evans Road.

At the council meeting on April 11, Chan read a statement explaining why she was stepping away from the dais during the discussion of the library.

"Regardless whether those questions and accusations have any merit, they confuse and demean the city's decision," said Chan, "and that's why I put the item back on the agenda and why I'm not participating in the discussion and vote and I'm going to excuse myself at this time.

"But I do thank Mayor for giving me the courtesy to make these statements," she said, clearly upset.

Reasons for choosing the location

When she left, Capital Improvements Management Services Director Mike Frisbie once again briefed the council on the project, outlining  why the city chose the Evans Road site as the preferred location. Among the reasons, said Frisbie, is that a building already exists on the property.

He explained that the Adobe Café once occupied the building, and it wasn’t always the top choice of staffers and library director, Ramiro Salazar. But the site became increasingly popular because it was a fairly new building.

"We weren’t interested in buying a dilapidated site," Frisbie told the council.

The library board then approved the Evans Road location in February, according to Frisbie.

The city council was less interested in the actual library project than it was what many considered the elephant in the room.

City staff to blame for disclosure fowl-up

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal spoke after the presentation and admonished the staff for not bringing the property issue before the council sooner.

"There were many, many, many people involved and for none of that information to get to us is a problem," Bernal said. "In all frankness, the role of the staff in many ways is to protect this body, to make sure that we have all the information so that when we make a decision we're not stepping into a bear trap - a booby trap - and that didn't happen."

Bernal motioned to continue the library discussion in May, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña seconded the motion.

Typically documents that go with city council items to be voted on will say if an item is recommended for approval by staff; something Saldaña said he’s comfortable with most times.

"When we read staff recommends approval we attribute that to a level of trust about everything that is coming before us. So I do believe what we had here is a sense of carelessness around this issue that I believe, and I hope, will be corrected," Saldaña said.

District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules directed his questions to City Attorney, Michael Bernard.

"For the record, did Councilwoman Chan in any way, shape or form violate the city charter?" he asked.

"As to the charter," replied Bernard, "there's no evidence that she is a part of the contract or essentially that she has any ownership interest in the land and if she has no ownership interest in the land, then she cannot be violating that provision of the charter."

"So repeat, just yes or no, as you see it, is she in violation of the city charter?" Soules asked again later.

"Oh, no sir," Bernard answered.

Rebuilding trust in the process

District 8 Councilman Reed Williams’ biggest worry is moving forward. He said he takes a discrepancy like this seriously because trust is hard to earn back from the public.

"While I understand mistakes can be made, I have yet to hear an apology to the council or to Councilwoman Chan because it has put this committee, this council, in a tough position," said Williams to Frisbie.

But Jean Brady, the library board chair, said she never thought the staff was hiding something. She and others didn't think twice about the matter because to them, it wasn't an issue.

"Well, I just think it was sort of for all of us, an issue that wasn't an issue, to be honest," she said. "Her property - yes - we all knew it was next door. Everybody did. It's just there."

The District 9 library is included in the city's 2012 bond program and Sculley said her staff had been through a thorough process to identify a library site.

"I'm disappointed that they didn't disclose it," Sculley said. "There is no ethics violation, according to the City Attorney, but regardless, there is the appearance and we're very sensitive to that. So I'm disappointed."

Chan did not speak publicly about the issue.

Aside from her recusal on the dais, many of her council colleagues said the emotional display is reason enough for them to believe she takes to heart her ethical integrity being called into question.