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Mayor Nirenberg's Challenge: Turning Promises Into Policy

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Joey Palacios
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Texas Public Radio
Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg reviews new policies with District 8 Communications Director Maria Cesar inside his district office.

On Wednesday, San Antonio will swear in a new mayor.  Ron Nirenberg will be just one vote among 11 on the council, but as mayor, he’ll sit on special boards, make important appointments and have the position to press forward with his ideas.

When Councilman Ron Nirenberg launched his campaign for mayor on December 10th, he talked about a need for ethics and transparency.

“We deserve a city government that spends your tax dollars judiciously and efficiently not on boondoggle projects or behind closed doors without the bright light of public scrutiny,” he said from his campaign headquarters last year.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Ron Nirenberg

Pundits said it would be an uphill battle.  But exactly six months later, on June 10th, Nirenberg defeated incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor.  It was the first time in 20 years that a challenger had unseated the sitting mayor. Nirenberg said the voters wanted a shift in policy.

“There seems to be a sense of joy throughout the community that we haven’t seen here in a long time and it’s based on the hopes that things can change for the better,” he added.

Now Nirenberg has to put into practice the initiatives he campaigned on.  He accused Taylor of letting the violent crime rate rise under her watch. He opposed the city’s current contract with police, and said talks should begin soon on the next contract. He said the current agreement is structurally unbalanced.

“Meaning the expenses are rising faster than revenues and that’s an extraordinary challenge that puts a strain on the officers in the department themselves, and creates challenges within the rest of the city functions,” he said.

The San Antonio Police Officers Association supported Taylor and interpreted Nirenberg’s comments to mean he would reopen the contract and attempt to cut officer pay and benefits. Association President Mike Helle said this last month before the run-off:  the union will have a tough time developing a working relationship with Mayor Nirenberg.

“Unfortunately, I would have to say yes, that it is probably strained right off the get go,” Helle said. “I’ve heard him multiple times say he wants to reopen up the contract and I’m taking the assumption that the only reopen up anything is that you want to take the redline and start cutting out benefits and pay for our police officers. That I can tell you is going to be a non-starter.”

But Nirenberg has said he doesn’t want to reopen the current contract.  But he wants to start talking about agreement on a new contract when this one expires in 2021.

“We’re on the same team when it comes to public safety. The details need to be worked out and that’s what I look forward to but we’re both professionals and there’s no reason why we can’t establish that relationship again,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg also plans to revisit the San Antonio Water System contract to build the Vista Ridge water pipeline.  Nirenberg had reservations about it but ultimately voted in favor of moving forward the 142 mile pipeline from Burleson County. Nearly three years later, SAWS has made changes to the contract without city council approval – which was not required. Nirenberg is concerned.

“There are concerns about transport permits, legislative fixes to enable the water to come to San Antonio and then legal concerns that are not part of the San Antonio Water System that have to do with the water permits, if not I have very serious concerns about whether the project can be successful,” Nirenberg added.

As Mayor, Nirenberg will have a seat on the SAWS Board of Trustees and influence about what happens next with the project. He and SAWS CEO Robert Puente have disagreed on Vista Ridge. Puente says he’s prepared to work with the new mayor.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Nirenberg talks with SAWS CEO Robert Puente at a council committee meeting shortly after the June run-off election.

“I’m ready to give him all the information he needs. During the campaign, vista ridge was an issue, and so it’s up to me to make sure he has all the information to make his decisions very knowledgably,” Puente added

The mayor-elect is also calling for ethics reform.  He says he wants a code with teeth and harsher consequences and an independent ethics auditor.    He wants to move forward with a light rail plan the city could ask voters to approve. 

Nirenberg campaigned on a new vision and new leadership for city hall and a majority of voters agreed.  He’ll now have two years to convince voters he can make good on his promises before voters put candidates to the test again.