By Michael Cary
Civilization's detrimental impact on San Antonio's sole source of drinking water began a couple of centuries ago with the European colonization of the Texas Hill Country.
Today, settlement of pristine land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone is unabated, as the city's population continues its northward surge, despite efforts of many residents to slow that trend.
Case in point: PGA Village. Three-thousand acres of golf universe punctuated with 1,500 single-family homes, 1,500 apartments, 1,000 condominiums and timeshares. More than 77,000 people signed a petition asking to vote on a proposal to create a special taxing district that would have allowed public financing of a private development.
A majority of the City Council pulled a fast one, ignored public outcry, and instead of allowing the public to vote, agreed to postpone annexing the project for 15 years - a move not subject to referendum.
District 7 Councilman and mayoral candidate Julián Castro opposed the boondoggle, alienating the PGA Village developers, who have yet to secure a deal for the project's super-duper hotel, although they have until 2006. When the Austin-based Lumbermen's, Inc., one of the project's developers, rolled into town to pitch the PGA Village, Castro resigned his position with the law firm of Akin & Gump, because it counted the project's developers as its clients.
City Council regularly meets to consider zoning changes throughout San Antonio, including tracts over the Recharge Zone, many of which are located in District 9, home to City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carroll Schubert. With the exception of District 5's Patti Radle, who regularly votes no on such cases, Castro is the only other Councilmember who vigorously defends the protection of the Recharge Zone.
Castro laments a "lot-by-lot development" policy that currently is in place at City Hall. "There are limited circumstances where a zoning change might improve aquifer protection."
He says he wants to bring average citizens to regular sessions conducted by city staff and developers to monitor the erosion of the City's planning policies such as the Uniform Development Code and the tree preservation ordinance.
If Castro wins the 2005 election, at age 30, he would be the youngest of the Texas Republic mayors to serve at City Hall since the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836.
"I've lived a life that is similar to most San Antonians," said Castro, whose twin brother, Joaquin, is a state representative. "I grew up with a single mom after the age of 8. I graduated from a public school. I also have experienced what a lot of families have aspired to."
Castro graduated from Jefferson High School and earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Stanford University in California, and a law degree from Harvard University in Cambridge. He has served as District 7 Councilman since 2001. (Mayor Ed Garza also hails from District 7.) He practices law with the firm, Gonzales, Hoblit & Ferguson, and serves as an adjunct political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
His experience in living on both coasts, Castro says, enabled him to see San Antonio's potential as a city. He saw other communities that are economically successful, but not as family-oriented or as culturally vibrant as San Antonio. "Other communities aren't as fundamentally connected as San Antonio, where people live front porch lives."
Castro says he has worked to give District 7 residents a stronger voice in planning and zoning decisions during his two terms on City Council. He says he supports clean air, open space, and cultivating a culture of accountability and integrity at City Hall.
Other names have surfaced in the 2005 mayoral race, but only Castro and Carroll Schubert have openly declared their intentions to campaign for the office.
What is the difference between Castro and Schubert? "The difference between Carroll and me is I can reach out to all of San Antonio, and he is too angry to do that," says Castro.
Query Castro about some changes he would make at City Hall, and he rattles them off from the top of his head: Install an electronic vote tally in City Council chambers so the public can tell how their elected officials vote. Post a record of those votes on the City's website for "a full public record." Install finance reforms where no candidate for City Council or Mayor would accept more than a $1,000 from any individual or political action committee. Create a weblink for the public to file Freedom of Information Requests from the City.
Recently, Castro asked City Manager Terry Brechtel to consider allowing the City to purchase prescription drugs from Canada to help curb a $20 million deficit in the City-funded employees' health insurance coverage. "It technically is against Food and Drug Administration rules, but cities are doing it," he says.
Meanwhile, there are battles to be won, and lost, at the planning, zoning and other committee levels. Consider the following e-mail from a local "smart growth" proponent: "An exemption from the new tree ordinance for school districts was approved ... by the Intergovernmental Affairs Council Committee. The districts got virtually everything they asked for in their agreement, which will exempt new schools built until 2009 from the new tree ordinance ... Councilman Castro spoke valiantly for a provision that would dedicate some of the millions of dollars schools will save through this agreement to educating children about the environmental benefits of trees. However, Councilman Schubert moved for immediate approval of the agreement ... there are no plans to allow the community to get involved in the aquifer negotiations."
Local tax conservatives will likely try to label Castro as a tax-and-spend councilman.
"I watch the public's money as responsibly as my constituents expect me to," Castro responds. "I haven't done anything that is tax and spend."
He urges San Antonians to remember that he represents part of the North Side, an area he would need to reach to become the City's next mayor. "Folks need to rethink pigeonholing. I plan to ask everyone to support me, from millionaires to the poorest neighborhoods." •
By Michael Cary