Ten of 12 candidates running for the San Antonio District 2 City Council seat answered a wide range of voters’ questions during an online forum ahead of the May 1 elections.
NOWCastSA, partnering with LOCAL Community News, livestreamed the April 10 event with first-term Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan and challengers Dori Brown, Carl Booker, Pharaoh Clark, Nneka Cleaver, Chris Dawkins, Norris Darden, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, Walter Perry Sr. and Kristi Villanueva.
Andrew Vicencio and Michael John Good were invited, but did not complete the technical requirements necessary to join the event.
Many of the participants touted their experiences working with the city and/or within District 2, which covers much of the East Side, part of the near-Northeast Side and Mahncke Park.
Candidates also addressed questions on crime, gentrification, representation and accountability in policing.
Answering a question from moderator and NOWCastSA Director Charlotte-Anne Lucas, the candidates pledged to ensure diverse, adequate representation on city panels; members are appointed by the mayor and each council member.
Villanueva committed to ensuring more residents step up to apply for positions on boards and commissions such as Planning, Zoning and Historic Design and Review.
She also wants to see more disabled, and younger and older adults apply.
Cleaver said District 2 has been underrepresented in recent years: “If (appointees) don’t have the best interests of District 2 in mind, they will not sit in that seat.”
Clark said diversity and equity are part of the selection process, and agreed with Brown that a council member should “seek the experts” and not just rely on applications.
Darden stressed coalitions with community groups to encourage more neighbors and stakeholders to invest in city processes.
McKee said it’s important to prioritize those residents who have ties to the community they would represent.
Perry said members of some panels have been there too long, adding the city needs new appointees with fresh ideas.
The candidates vowed to improve City Hall’s public engagement and outreach, with many saying they would personally attend as many live and virtual meetings of neighborhood associations and other community groups as possible.
Dawkins said he would be proactive and reach out to such neighborhood organizations and set up gatherings with them.
“Those constituents are what makes it all go,” he added.
Clark said the city must make sure all residents have every way possible to communicate with their elected officials.
“You have to open all lines of communication and make sure everyone has a seat at the table,” he said.
Perry wants to create hubs for community groups to get resources to help their residents.
“Once we start utilizing those things, we can be successful,” he added.
Booker called for a community dashboard to continuously track residents’ requests for assistance on specific issues.
“If we know a neighborhood has a standard of stray dogs or speeding, we need to know that,” he said.
McKee, a former aide to Andrews-Sullivan, said he’d form an advisory board to reach out to neighborhood groups and establish full Friday business hours for constituents at City Hall and at the District 2 field office.
Brown echoed Booker’s community dashboard idea, saying she would do everything to follow up on residents’ issues so long as they’re officially noted somewhere.
Andrews-Sullivan said her office is always working to enhancing communication with constituents: “We’re still accessible, we’re still doing work for the community.”
The candidates discussed gentrification’s effects, a hot topic particularly in neighborhoods such as Mahncke Park, Dignowity Hill, Government Hill and Denver Heights. Perry advocates raising the level of home ownership.
Clark said he’d push for more tax breaks and aid for older, disabled and/or low-income homeowners.
Andrews-Sullivan said the city aims to work with community partners to achieve responsible development.
“We have changed (the Unified Development Code) to ensure new development and redevelopment reflects their surrounding communities,” she added.
McKee said District 2 leaders must do a deep dive into affordability and poverty issues, and be honest with residents facing critical zoning situations.
Brown said longtime homeowners need help to age in place.
“We also will not allow developers to come in and build something that’ll compete and drive up tax rates,” she added.
Villanueva said it’s vital community leaders “work with developers and make sure they understand that we want developers who will work with small businesses and not take advantage of our neighbors.”
Darden urged the city to empower homeowners with information about how they can maintain their property.
The candidates also addressed homelessness. Villanueva said the city should talk with law-enforcement officials to see what they’re encountering on the ground level and expand on what the city can do differently to assist helping homeless individuals.
Perry supports connecting the homeless with next of kin, and assisting homeless children, teenagers, veterans and the LGBTQ community.
McKee backs a housing-first approach: “Housing first prioritizes getting people off the streets, into a shelter and getting them access to mental-health services.”
Booker said a community dashboard can help the city better understand the needs of each homeless person. Darden agreed each homeless person has a reason for their situation.
Andrews-Sullivan said the city will continue looking at green spaces, vacant warehouses and motels as potential places for additional shelters and traditional housing.
“We continue to work on the homeless outreach initiative and the strategic plan the city has put in place,” she added.
The candidates also addressed violent crime in District 2. Many council hopefuls voiced a need for public and private sectors to provide more recreational, educational and employment/job training opportunities, especially for youth and formerly incarcerated residents.
Villanueva said the city should work with neighborhoods to improve safety. Andrews-Sullivan supports a greater police presence, and mechanisms where residents may safely speak out about violence in their neighborhood.
Clark and Perry back reinvesting in efforts to reduce recidivism while Cleaver urges the city to enhance successful public-safety initiatives in concert with the wishes of District 2 residents and community leaders.
McKee said the city must improve streetlights in certain areas, and work toward what’s best in specific neighborhoods.
Finally, the candidates addressed accountability in policing.
San Antonio voters will consider two proposed city charter amendments, with one — Proposition B — calling for the elimination of police officers’ collective-bargain rights in union contracts with the city.
Police reformers say reining in collective bargaining will compel the city and the San Antonio Police Department to confront disciplinary issues and cases of excessive force.
Andrews-Sullivan called accountability important, but expressed concern that Proposition B, if approved, will not achieve reformers’ desires.
Villanueva backs demands for more accountability and changes in the city/police union pact, but said she does not support Prop B.
Other District 2 hopefuls voiced support for Prop B. Brown said the Police Department should strive for greater diversity.
“Just because you provide a particular service doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be held accountable to the people you serve,” she added.
McKee called for additional police reforms, and wants to eliminate the evergreen clause, which keeps in place terms of an expired contract, such as the pact between the city and police union, when a new one hasn’t been negotiated.
Clark agreed other steps toward police reform are necessary: “We must act now to ensure the safety of the community.”
Darden said more transparency is needed from police and City Hall. Perry said he supports emergency first responders, but that improved police accountability is crucial.
Dawkins said if the San Antonio Police Officers Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, wants more community support, the group should be proactive and communicate better with residents.
Cleaver said the Police Department needs more self-discipline and to increase socioeconomic diversity within its ranks.
The other proposition on the May 1 ballot lets the city issue bonds for permanent public improvements, such as building affordable housing, or others not prohibited by the Texas Constitution.
Upcoming editions of LOCAL Community News will preview this and many other contested races in and around San Antonio ahead of the May 1 elections.
Early voting is April 19-27.