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In South Side debate, Helen Dutmer loses her voice

At the first meeting of the entire newly elected City Council, its greener members were still finding their way around the council dais, speaking into dead microphones, calling people to the podium for the wrong issue, and bungling protocol. But the mood was convivial, and people didn't seem to mind standing up and sitting down like it was a prayer meeting and stating their names several times.

Several South Side community members stood up to speak in favor of a zoning change that will designate land at 731 Riverside Drive, on the South Side, as an Historic Multi-Family District, River Improvement Overlay, rather than Historic General Commercial District, River Improvement Overlay. This will allow PhelpsToiton, Inc., the owners, and Odyssey Partners, the developers, to build a 240 unit multi-family community on the property.

Gloria Cortez, a businesswoman who lives and works across the street from the proposed development, said her neighbors are behind the project 100 percent. "We have been told that something is on its way for years now," she said. "My parents have paid their taxes for 38 years, and they are still waiting for something to change." For years, she added, that land has been "nothing but a dump for sofas and old cars. Now, here is a developer who is going to do something positive. That's what we need. How long do we have to wait?"

"When I volunteered to serve on the zoning commission, I didn't realize my citizenship would be taken away.”

- Helen Dutmer

Noel Martinez echoed her sentiments, saying that as a lifelong citizen of the South Side he is very familiar with the property in question. Although a community pastor today, at one time he had bought and used drugs at the site. "I know what's under that bridge. This is a good thing," he asserted.

Although she professed to have an opinion on the matter, Helen Dutmer, former District 3 City Council member and county commissioner, was not given the opportunity to weigh in on the development. According to the City's legal department, because Dutmer serves on the Zoning Commission, it is illegal for her to speak before the City Council on zoning issues. "When I volunteered to serve on the zoning commission, I didn't realize my citizenship would be taken away," Dutmer said.

Contrary to the law, she said, there is a precedent for her to be allowed to speak - two previous zoning commissioners have appeared before City Council - but when she brought this up to the City, she was told it simply hadn't caught the others in time. "That's a poor excuse," she said. "I am very bitter. I worked my tushy off for 14 1/2 years on City Council to get the Mission Parks established."

District 3 Councilman Roland Gutierrez also spoke in favor of re-zoning the parcel, saying "while on the surface it may seem a difficult issue, in the end it's a win-win situation that has the community's support." Gutierrez reported that Odyssey has signed two "memorandums of understanding" agreeing to build only 240 units, although re-zoning would allow 350-400, and to convey property along the San Antonio River to the San Antonio River Authority for revitalization at a substantially "lesser cost." No one spoke against the development, and all 11 Councilmembers voted in favor of the re-zoning.

In other Council business, Interim City Manager J. Rolando Bono told Mayor Phil Hardberger that it takes longer than two weeks to hire a city attorney.

Hardberger motioned to start the process of hiring a replacement for City Attorney Andrew Martin, who resigned several weeks ago. The City Attorney provides legal representation and is a legal advisor to all City departments, including City Council and City Manager. Hardberger said that not having a City Attorney is tantamount to "not having a voice," and asked that Bono present a list of applicants in two weeks.

Bono respectfully replied that it would be impossible to launch a candidate search, conduct interviews, and present a list of candidates in two weeks, and that it was his understanding of the City Charter that the interim city manager's role was to select a candidate and present it to the council for approval.

After much discussion, Hardberger edited his mandate, asking for consensus that Bono should start the candidate search "with all due process and speed," keeping City Council informed, and completing the task "as soon as it is practical."

"Sixty days is a very optimistic goal, but that's what I'd attempt to do," Bono promised.

By Susan Pagani

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