Chick-Fil-A & Cycling Safety Take Center Stage at Mayor's State of the City Town Hall
April 2, 2019 - Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy
By: Jonathan Guajardo - Editor, San Antonio Sentinel
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez and District 9 Councilman John Courage, fielded questions from an audience comprised of city constituents from all parts of San Antonio Tuesday night at the airy Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy on the far north side. Addressing topics ranging from cycling safety issues to the nationally-controversial Chick-Fil-A ban at the San Antonio International Airport, the city leaders tried to respond to each concern thoughtfully and without reservation.
One of the first issues addressed had to deal with the Homestead Exemption not being offered by the City of San Antonio and the city council’s plans to work towards implementing the exemption into their future proposals. Nirenberg referred to how, in 2016, the city worked to effectively reduce the tax rate, but residents saw no actual tax relief due to the fact that school taxes were increasing simultaneously because of the state’s rollback of public school financing. Later, Nirenberg defended the city’s past decisions and position on tax reform and referenced that the city council is working to make life better for San Antonians through investing in improvements in infrastructure and reform.
The next topic addressed struck an emotional cord with all those in attendance, when Bryan Martin of the bicycle activist group Bike San Antonio addressed the recent passing of prominent cyclist Tito Bradshaw, 35, who was struck by a drunk driver around 12:30 a.m. Monday in the 1900 block of East Houston Street downtown and died shortly thereafter. He mentioned that there is a petition for one of the many bike lanes the group is suggesting and that anyone who felt so inclined should sign it on their website. “I don’t understand how much longer or how many people need to die before this city takes cycling seriously,” stated Martin, who also is the owner of local electric bicycle company, Bronko Bikes. Nirenberg, ever sympathetic, pledged that Bradshaw’s death “wouldn’t be in vain,” but later followed up with the fact that this has been one of the least bloody years for bike deaths in the city and referred to Shirley Gonzales’ Vision Zero initiative which is, “a strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries among all road uses, and to ensure safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” He then addressed the “epidemic level of drunk driving” the city has dealt with in recent years and that it is an issue that needs correcting. He also referred to the fact that a few weeks ago the city authorized “an acceleration of the bicycle master plan through federal grants” and how his council has “doubled the amount of resources dedicated to basic transportation infrastructure,” which includes bike lanes.
Later on in the evening’s discussion, the glaring topic of the “Chcik-Fil-A Ban” at the San Antonio Airport was breached by a former CPS board member who questioned whether, if presented with a re-vote, Mayor Nirenberg and the rest of the City Council would choose to allow the addition of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant to the list of airport food vendors. Nirenberg stated that he wasn’t “inclined to ask for a re-vote” and that it was unfortunate that the issue has become a “political football.” The Mayor defended his position and said that their decision to not allow the faith-centric fast food organization a spot amongst the throngs of airport culinary destinations had more to do with an emphasis on keeping the eateries local in nature, referring to prominent San Antonio locales such as La Gloria, Smoke Shack, and Local Coffee who had applied for spots in the airport and been accepted.
Councilman Pelaez then took the microphone and addressed his thoughts on the 6-4 Chick-Fil-A vote along with his controversial, “symbol of hate” statement he made at the referenced council meeting, excusing himself by saying that “it was a really long day” and that “the meeting was really really really long.” He later recused himself from all the attention directed toward the council’s decision from the local and national press stating that, “if you look at just the news and listen to the radio, the only thing the city council has done in two years was move the confederate statue and we have a crosswalk and we did this Chick-Fil-A thing.” Pelaez then referenced how the city long ago halted the process of looking into individual contracts with individual restaurants and instead began a process where the city puts out a large bid invitation where “big behemoth companies” organize two teams which compete against each other for the bid by creating groups of popular local eateries who the council then decides to move forward with. The two teams that won put together a group of local offerings including Sip Brew Bar and Market, Smoke Shack, Local Coffee, the Spurs store, The Luxury, Adina’s Market, SIP, Boss Bagels and, the one lone chain restaurant, Chick-Fil-A.
Following in the mayor’s path, Councilman Palaez then stated that the decision to join in Councilman Trevino’s objection to the proposed Chick-Fil-A restaurant had more to do with an emphasis on locality rather than politics. He made reference to a news story that broke the Monday before the meeting that said that Chick-Fil-A still had anti-LGBTQ sentiments, and then recalled how he made the following statement during a meeting: “You know, there’s a lot of companies out there that would make us a lot of money. If I put vape shops in there it would make a killing, but we’re not gonna put vape shops. And if we put lottery machines up there, we’d make a killing, but we’re not going to put lottery machines either. Because what we want to make sure is that 100% of the people who get down from those airplanes, not some, but 100% of the people who walk out of there have a San Antonio satisfied experience. And if there are some people who walk through that airport and see what they perceive to be a symbol of hate, I don’t want to get in the culture wars, I want my airport to be free of bad feelings for anybody.” When wrapping up his talking points, Councilman Palaez directly addressed Reyes’ question about the potential revisit of the Chick-Fil-A vote and his lack of discretion in verbiage by stating, “Look, I should’ve used some better words, but at the end of the decision, do I want to revisit that vote, not really. I mean, they’re not local.”
Councilman Courage from San Antonio District 9 then had a chance to speak on the issue, and he admitted that while he has a great amount of respect for all the members of the city council, he doesn’t always agree with their decisions. Saying that he went to notable fact-checking site, Snopes.com, on the day of the vote, he mentioned, “A lot of what we were hearing was 2012 talk about what the owner did with this foundation. I didn’t see anything in there that said they discriminated against individuals, that they discriminated against employees, so that went into my thought process, as well as the fact that I sit on the audit committee that actually reviewed the original proposal that came to my committee and we vote on those and then move those to council. And the presentation I had, I thought was very clear and concise. And it showed that the return to the city that we were going to get through that session contract was significantly more than any of the others that had put in a bid.” Finishing up, he asserted that, ”I didn’t want us as a council to become engaged in a battle over cultural or social issues when we decide on if the city is going to business with a business. If we’re going to do that, and one of my other council people made a point of this, then we’ve got to start evaluating every business that comes to the city and we’ve got to decide what’s their culture, what’s their value, what do they want, and we shouldn’t do this. I understand people make a decision on what they want to do with their feet and with their pocketbook, and that’s how I voted that’s how we should leave it. So I voted, or I wanted to go along and vote for the original presentation, but it was amended to leave out Chick-Fil-A and I just could not vote for that.”
After a brief stint discussing the closing of sidewalk gaps, the topic again returned to the airport concession issue, stemmed by a question from D9 constituent Arlys Reyes. She commented that she’d like to see, “that if a business has religious views to be closed on Sundays, they have an opportunity to be at my airport. If they’re Jewish and they observe the Sabbath, they have an opportunity to be at my airport, if they’re Muslim and they have a day of worship, they have an opportunity to be in my airport. I think it’s unacceptable for a city our size to say this is what we chose to do because this is what we see as best.” Doubling down on her statement, Mrs. Reyes then questioned that if Starbucks is allowed, as a chain restaurant, to exist within the airport, then why couldn’t Chick-Fil-A.
In response to Mrs. Reyes’ line of questioning, Mayor Nirenberg attempted to use his own faith background to back up his and the council’s decision. “I go to church. in fact, I come from a multi-faith background. That anyone would equate my Christianity with a fast food restaurant, is a perversion of the faith I believe in,” vocalized Nirenberg. He then said that they are responding adequately to the concerns of citizens and taking their input into consideration whether or not they agree on the issue at hand, but that “it is a sad commentary on our entire nation and our politics that we are here discussing sandwiches.” Mrs. Reyes responded by clarifying that she wasn’t equating her faith with sandwiches as the mayor implied, and that instead her point was that “a company that has religious views is being limited from from being in our property.”
After the flood waters of the Chick-Fil-A discussion subsided, the topic turned to mental health when a local nurse practitioner asked about what the city will do about mental health problems plaguing San Antonio, especially among veterans. Councilman Courage took the initiative on the question and responded by addressing what is being done in regards to mental health issues with the VA and in regards to new mental health specific hospitals being constructed in Bexar County. Also, referencing the way that law enforcement interacts with people with mental health issues, he stated, “What we’ve tried to do is educate our police and have police units that can deal with mental health issues out on the street.”
The town hall concluded with a brief discussion of the Alamo Plaza redevelopment plan as well as continued plans for the Alamo Cenotaph. Mayor Nirenberg contended that, “we want it (The Alamo) to be restored for future generations to understand it, to know the history of it and to ensure that there is a proper reference restored to it, because I think we can all agree that t-shirt shops and trinket sales and carnival-like shows on the grounds of the Alamo is not about history.” Councilman Peleaz then compared the Alamo Plaza redevelopment plan to the renovation of Union Station in Washington D.C. and the relocation of Michelangelo’s David. The meeting concluded with John Courage’s statement that he did not agree with the council’s decision on Alamo Plaza. Voicing his own opinion on the matter, Courage stated, “I want to see the Alamo preserved, but I don’t think that we have to close all of the area around it (The Alamo) with some kind of garden like fence so that the public doesn’t have the kind of access we’ve had in the past.”