CASTLE HILLS — Since May, city government has been embroiled in discord so intense at times, some city residents have handed out flyers proclaiming “Castle Hills is Under Attack.”
One of the latest disagreements to boil over at City Hall occurred July 10, when the City Council, after a tense, hours-long discussion, voted to sever ties with longtime City Attorney Michael Brenan.
“I have to say what it’s beginning to look like — and I supported certain candidates — this is just a raw power play that does not serve the citizens of Castle Hills,” said Brother William Dooling during the July 10 meeting.
Lesley Wenger, a former alderwoman returned by voters to City Hall in the May 5 election, said councils that don’t agree on everything are not unusual.
“I’m trying to accomplish what people elected me to do, which is stop wasting money and fix the streets and drainage,” Wenger said. “Change doesn’t come easy. Hopefully the tension will die down. I don’t expect it to go on forever.”
Representing the landlocked city of about 4,400 are Mayor Tim Howell and Alderwomen Maretta Scott, Amy McLin and Wenger, as well as Aldermen Douglas Gregory and Clyde “Skip” McCormick.
Incumbent Gregory and McCormick also ran in the May 5 race, with many viewing them as ideologically partnered with Wenger.
Observers say some of the recent friction at City Hall can be traced to the months leading up to the balloting. Howell had campaigned for council incumbents JR Treviño and Frank Paul, who were challenged by McCormick and Wenger, respectively.
“Frank Paul and JR Treviño have always been the voice of reason and have always respected the city’s well-being above their own and are 100 percent committed to do the same in the future,” Howell wrote on the Castle Hills News First Facebook page Feb. 3.
Despite Howell’s support, Treviño and Paul both lost. Wenger beat Paul with 54 percent of the vote; McCormick took 55 percent over Treviño. McCormick campaigned on his experience as an attorney, educator and business consultant. Wenger focused on fiscal responsibility and roads.
“People asked me to run again. People were upset about drainage and streets,” said Wenger, who served from 2014-2016. “I keep in touch with people in the community, and drainage and streets are a big concern.”
The campaign was not without controversy. In February, Treviño sent cease-and-desist letters to Wenger and her husband, Robert Anderson, a former Castle Hills mayor, threatening legal action over what he claimed were false and “defamatory statements.”
Wenger and McCormick were sworn into office May 15. One of the first public signs of dissent occurred May 29, during a joint council and Zoning Commission meeting lasting only nine minutes. At that session, the French School of San Antonio requested a zoning change to allow it to rent classroom space at Castle Hills Church, 2200 N.W. Military Highway.
On May 1, the Zoning Commission had rejected the French School’s request. However, the council referred the issue back to the commission to consider a special-use permit for the school. The joint council/zoning meeting was viewed as a way to speed up the process, because officials with the French School had hoped to begin classes by August.
The joint meeting on May 29 had just started when Wenger moved to have the council approve the commission’s original May 1 recommendation to deny the school’s request.
Founders Estelle De Oliveira and Katia Edrenkina said the school would have 40 students from pre-kindergarten and first grade, learning French language and culture while meeting state education standards.
During the May 29 gathering, Gregory questioned the legality of holding a joint council/zoning meeting, as well as having commissioners and Brenan seated alongside council members.
“To have the entire council sitting with the Zoning Commission — there’s something very odd about this,” Gregory said.
“This was the most expeditious way of addressing the subject because both the Zoning Commission and the council could hear testimony of the public … (and) the testimony of the applicants,” Brenan countered.
Wenger then called for a vote to accept the commission’s original recommendation, which was seconded by McCormick.
What followed next was a terse exchange among Brenan, Wenger, McCormick, Howell and other council members.
“I don’t really believe you should be sitting up here. You are unelected,” Wenger told Brenan.
Howell allowed the council to move forward with a vote. With no public discussion, even though speakers had signed up to support the school, the vote went 3-2 with Wenger, McCormick and Gregory dissenting.
“Although there were citizens to be heard, they were never allowed to address the zoning issue before the council,” wrote former council member Paul on the Castle Hills News First Facebook page June 11. He added that Zoning Commission members did not get a chance to speak, either.
The school has since indicated it will be opening on San Antonio’s North Side.
In addition, measures that could reduce the power of City Manager Ryan Rapelye, who was hired in February, have led Paul to take aim at Wenger, McCormick and Gregory.
“By law, we are a mayor/city manager type of government,” Paul wrote. “We need to let our city manager do his job without interference and unwarranted restriction. To do otherwise, may well hinder progress in our city.”
As divisions grow deeper at City Hall, with nearly every council meeting since May 29 marked by often-heated exchanges among council members and residents, Howell has taken to social media to voice his displeasure.
“I am extremely disappointed and saddened of the actions of the three newly elected council people who submitted items on the attached agenda which seem to try to change Castle Hill’s form of government,” Howell posted June 9 on the Castle Hills News First Facebook page. “These proposals, if passed, would gut our city’s form of government to the core,” the mayor added.
However, Wenger, McCormick and Gregory also have their supporters, who say the trio is trying to make City Hall more fiscally responsible.
Resident John Mahr spoke in favor of Wenger and Gregory, and criticized previous administrations at Castle Hills.
“I get one of these flyers (“Castle Hills is Under Attack”) in the mail because someone is outraged that (Brenan) may be fired. I didn’t see that kind of outrage when (former City Manager) Diane Pfeil got bounced on her ass out of here. I didn’t see any selective outrage when Douglas Gregory was held in contempt for nothing … and all the sudden we have a criminal investigation against him,” Mahr said during the citizens-to-be-heard portion of the council meeting June 12.
The council dismissed Pfeil in July 2016. In the run-up to the election this year, Gregory faced claims he’d used his influence as an alderman to move his street to the top of a maintenance list. Though a police investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, the council censured him.
“Facts are always being pushed around here, every side says we have the facts the other side doesn’t,” Mahr added. “An election was just held, new people are sitting on the council. Give these people some time to do whatever they do. Trust me, there’s no Russians up here, there’s no collusion going on.”
After Brenan’s dismissal at the July 10 council meeting, he told city leaders, “I want to thank the 15 City Councils for whom I have worked for that engagement and for the honorable citizens of this city for whom I have served as city attorney. My goal has been to require the city to faithfully and diligently honor and adhere to the law while seeking compassion and fairness for its citizens. I believe the government during my tenure has been clean and law-abiding, for which the citizens can be proud.”
Two council members — Wenger and McCormick — voted to let go of Brenan, while McLin and Scott abstained. Gregory — who co-authored the measure to relieve Brenan of his duties — ended up voting to retain his services.