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Facing Difficult Decisions, San Antonio City Council Sets Tone For Next Two Years

Ryan Loyd

The San Antonio City Council took the oath of office in a swearing in ceremony inside the chambers of City Hall, preparing for what is ahead for the body over the next two years.

Mayor Julián Castro said the mission of the council is a double-edged sword because each member is looking out for the interests of their own district, but he told his colleagues they also have to do what’s best for the city as a whole.

"The challenge that all of us face is to balance the everyday needs of our constituents with a long-term grand vision for our city's future," he said on the dais.

City Clerk Leticia Vacek asked the members to stand and repeat in unison the oath with their right hands raised. Afterward, Castro welcomed new councilmembers Rebecca Viagran in District 3, Shirley Gonzales in District 5, and Ron Nirenberg in District 8.

He noted that he and three of the council members have now worked together for four years: District 2’s Ivy Taylor, District 6’s Ray Lopez, and District 9’s Elisa Chan.

No longer rookies are second-term councilmembers, Castro said, include District 1’s Diego Bernal, District 10’s Carlton Soules, and District 7’s Cris Medina.

All of the councilmembers thanked their supporters while many also outlined some of their objectives for their two year terms.

Bernal said he has high expectations of the body.

"This council -- the one you're looking at right now -- has the greatest potential to do amazing, tremendous, great things in a span of two years," he said.

But the council is facing some big challenges. Most immediately is the city budget with a $35 million to $50 million budget shortfall. Councilmembers participated in a day-long goal-setting session this week, but how to close the gap and balance the budget is far from resolved.

Soules said at the session that he doesn’t see how the city can fund services without a property tax increase, though he is opposed to one.

The council will also have to decide whether utility rates will be increased in the coming year. Both CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System predict an increase request to keep up with growth and to maintain infrastructure.

Bernal’s own anti-discrimination ordinance is also on the table. The city’s governance committee began taking up the issue a month ago, but several councilmembers expressed desire for more time to talk to their constituents to consider the measure that would update the rules on hiring and contract-awarding practices within the city.

The June 19 governance committee meeting was canceled and the council is off during the month of July.

Shirley Gonzales may have had the biggest support group at the swearing in. She may have also outlined the greatest number of goals for her West Side district. Of the new councilmembers, she may have the most to prove.

An army of voters dissatisfied with former Councilman David Medina ousted the 27 year old from his seat. Many of them said he did not respond to their concerns.

The 41-year-old businesswoman set the tone of her term with ideas to create a walkable community so that people can go to schools and churches on foot. She said she wants to free the West Side of stray animals that, in her words plague the community,

She also wants to further economic development for small businesses and framed it all within the context an anecdote about an orange tree she said she passes every day.

"There was an orange tree in full bloom and it was really impressive and I said to my neighbor, 'Mr. Rodriguez, that's an amazing orange tree.' And he said, 'My father planted this tree 50 years ago for everybody to share, so you can have as much as you like, anytime.'

"This is the kind of community that I will serve and why I'm so proud to serve because maybe we don't have so much of monetary things to share, but we have the biggest hearts and we will give everything for our community and this is what I plan to do for you all here," Gonzalez said.

Castro said each of the members are visionaries, listeners, judges, and workers for the people, who will closely be watching the new council.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.