by Mark Reagan
Behind these doors, the San Antonio City Council approved an ordinance Thursday that diverts $32 million that was slated for the sidelined streetcar petition.
An attempt to place the streetcar petition on the November ballot failed in a 5 to 4 vote Thursday morning during the City Council A Session.
District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher motioned to amend an ordinance that would divert the $32 million city commitment to the streetcar project and require a vote for streetcar projects in the future to include adding the petition to the November ballot.
“A charter change is stronger for citizens than city council passing an ordinance,” Gallagher said.
The ordinance, which diverts the $32 million to other Downtown projects to be decided at a later date, requires a vote on streetcar projects in the future and establishes a charter commission that will create language for a streetcar vote, look at how mayoral vacancies are filled, consider city council pay and resolve conflicts between the city charter and state and federal laws, did pass with a 7 to 2 vote and without Gallagher's amendment.
The failure to place the item on the November ballot comes on the heels of City Clerk Leticia Vacek citing City Attorney Robert F. Greenblum’s opinion that streetcar petitions did gather enough valid signatures, but because of missing circulator affidavits — more than 8,000 of those signatures were tossed out on a technicality.
Gallagher’s amendment would have required the Streetcar Vote Coalition and the City of San Antonio to come up with agreed language for the charter change that would have been vetted by Greenblum. Had it been approved, the new language would have to be agreed upon and placed on the ballot by Aug. 18, per Texas election rules.
“We’re carrying our decision now into the future on our backs.
The citizens of San Antonio are watching,” Gallagher said before the vote.
Interim May Ivy Taylor, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales voted against Gallagher’s amendment.
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier and Gallagher voted in favor of placing the petition on the November ballot.
After Gallagher's amendment failed, Lopez and Nirenberg voted for the staff recommendation of the ordinance, which doesn’t include placing the petition on the November ballot, while Krier and Gallagher held their ground, voting against it.
Taylor said she would like to see new language created based off of the streetcar petition’s intent and placed on the ballot for the May election. The newly-established charter commission will create that language, along with other upcoming proposed charter amendments to be placed on the May 2015 ballot.
Streetcar Vote Coalition spokesman Greg Brockhouse said during public comments that he isn’t opposed to a May election.
“It’s time to be good partners. We are all here for the best interest of San Antonio,” Brockhouse said, adding that he supports a vote in November or May. “It’s about compromise.”
But talk of litigation still made its way into the conversation in the City Council Chambers Thursday morning.
Jeff Judson, a member of the Streetcar Vote Coalition, had urged the council to place the petition on the November ballot and avoid going to court and being in the news every day.
“We can diffuse this situation very easily,” Judson said.
The Streetcar Vote Coalition sent a letter to the members of the city council, the city attorney and to the city clerk on Tuesday that threatened legal action if the petition signatures weren't validated and the measure wasn't placed on the November ballot. You can read the letter here.
And Gallagher also mentioned litigation, saying a lawsuit would be much more expensive than the $800,000 price tag that comes with placing the petition on the November ballot.
“What would be the cost of a court battle compared to an election? I don’t want to spend money on an unnecessary legal fight,” Gallagher said.
Krier echoed Gallagher’s sentiments and added that based off of his history as a lawyer and having read the legal opinions on the petition from both sides, that he thought a judge would rule that circulators weren’t needed.
“If that’s the case, we are required to put the language on the ballot as written. I think the language is flawed,” Krier said, adding that it would be bad public policy.
As written, the streetcar petition would amend City Charter Section 128 by adding this language:
"No streetcar or other light rail franchise, easement or other transaction involving or in association with granting the right to use any street, highway, alley, park, public place or any other real property of the city, either along, across, over or under the same, shall ever be valid unless expressly approved by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the city in an election distinctly specifying such purpose separate from any other subject or purpose."
The entire council agrees that the language is flawed.
Last week, Taylor and the council pulled their support of the streetcar project because of community opposition.