Term limits and plans

The campaign to change the term limits for San Antonio’s mayor and council members has already begun. With the re-election of Mayor Phil Hardberger, some local columnists and former council members have begun to trot out the standard arguments about how the term limits approved by voters in 1991 and reaffirmed again in a May 2004 city election somehow hobble San Antonio. According to former District 10 Councilman Chip Haass, we are a community without a “vision” or “long-term planning.” Other writers offer the opinion that relaxing term limits would improve “stability,” “continuity of leadership,” and of course “foster a long-term vision” for the city.

Oh, come on.

There were very clear reasons why our current term-limit rules were overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1991. And those reasons were just as apparent in May 2004, when voters again turned down a proposal to loosen them. In coming weeks, I’ll take a look at why we have term limits and what the public was saying about the San Antonio mayor and city council. But for now a look at that “vision” and “planning” business, and the way the public’s business really seems to be done in our town, occasioned by a quick trip to Dallas to the “Victory District,” where the American Airlines Arena, home of the Mavericks, is located. We have a far better team. They have a far better arena development.

San Antonio’s AT&T Center sits like a big barn amidst a sea of parking by the Joe and Harry Freeman Coliseum, with no relationship to the larger city or even its immediate environs. When our arena funding plan went to the voters in late 1999, it was wrapped in a blanket of promises. County Judge Cyndi Krier touted it as “critical” to the city’s bid to host the Pan Am Games. Got the arena. Didn’t get the games. Probably won’t get them in the future, either.

Then there were the promises of Eastside revitalization, infrastructure improvements, and “development.” Excluding the plans for the Vidorra high rise, we haven’t seen much of those.

In marked contrast, Dallas’s arena is really urban, linked to the city and surrounded by a host of planned new development, including new residential complexes, office buildings, a W hotel, and a new Mandarin Oriental hotel under construction. Ross Perot Jr., the developer of Victory and the Dallas arena, had a plan. We got a deal — one good for the Spurs, but that did little for the surrounding area and failed as an opportunity to really benefit the city.

But wait, some might say. The Spurs arena was approved in 1999, when term limits crippled our City officials’ “long-term planning” and “vision.” Except that the arena deal was put together by our Bexar County judge and commissioners, and they weren’t crippled by term limits. They could (and did) stay in office for years.

Of course, the AT&T Center wasn’t the only major public-development project that was mis-planned, mis-located, and ill-conceived. The City did a great job building the Alamodome in a location and fashion that largely cut if off from the rest of town. And on the other side of downtown, the “pink elephant” of Fiesta Plaza and the redevelopment of the Vista Verde area proved equally mis-planned and poorly designed. Yet both of those projects were developed during the 1980s, when Henry Cisneros was mayor and before anyone had conceived of term limits for SA’s elected officials.

Get the idea? We managed to not plan, and to operate without a vision, well prior to the 1991 imposition of term limits. And the county government, without term limits of any sort, has not demonstrated a grand success at the vision thing, either.

It is really a matter of how this community makes public decisions, on big projects and little ones, over the years. We don’t fail to plan because of awful term limits. We don’t plan because “planning” would require making choices among competing priorities. Such choices are necessarily difficult. A “plan” to revitalize the inner city might require that we not provide tax incentives to developers or businesses in outlying areas. A “plan” to invest in education might require that we not spend hundreds of millions on a convention center expansion. A “plan” to build new homes in a form that could be served by transit, either buses or rail, would hinder lovely new developments like the PGA Village.

Instead we make deals. And term limits don’t change the deals and who gets them. 

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