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Year of the Pissed-Off Citizen: San Antonio’s Top 10 News Stories of 2018 Point to a Trend of Rising Civic Engagement 

No members of city council were led away in handcuffs, no one opened fire at a Fiesta parade, but 2018 was anything but a quiet news year for San Antonio.

And much of the noise came from its residents.

Fair to say, this was the year San Antonio got woke. Neighborhoods stood up to the ongoing march of gentrification, citizens demanded paid sick leave and voters gave a thumbs down to a controversial and increasingly powerful city manager.

Clearly, many residents worried about the Alamo City’s unprecedented growth and how local officials are responding. Mayor Ron Nirenberg has shown a willingness to tackle tough issues such as transportation, affordable housing and entrenched inequality. But, at the same time, citizen ire grew over concerns that city staff had become deaf to their concerns.

Here’s our rundown of the stories that shook San Antonio in 2018, many carrying through that thread of rising civic — and often furious — engagement:
click to enlarge Chris Steele speaks at the Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • Chris Steele speaks at the Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters.
1. Charter Amendments
There was plenty not to like about the San Antonio fire union’s three punitive charter amendments, designed to give it the upper hand in future contract talks while lighting a flaming paper sack on the doorstep of city hall. Ultimately, voters balked at the most disruptive, which would have made it absurdly easy for citizens to petition to overturn council decisions. But enough did agree to limit the salary of future city managers and to let the union unilaterally force contract disputes into arbitration. That meant a win for the union, which fought the city in court over the evergreen clause in its contract, and also a clear signal of citizens’ wariness (or perhaps cynicism) about the direction of city government. Union chief Chris Steele’s antics also added a touch of bizarro to the unfolding story. He was busted for donning a fake uniform and called a press conference in which he stood stone faced, refusing to answer media questions.

2. Sculley Resigns
And on that note, the amendments’ defacto no-confidence vote hastened the departure of City Manager Sheryl Sculley. While her exit was couched as a retirement, public policy experts point out that it was likely informed by Nirenberg, who’s about to seek reelection and doesn’t need the baggage of an unpopular manager at his side. Of course, Sculley’s $450,000 salary made her an easy target, but voters were also reacting to her expanding power and their frustration about city staff’s apparent disconnect from neighborhood concerns. Despite her many detractors, though, Sculley accomplished much during her 13-year tenure. She straightened out a romper room city hall when she arrived from Phoenix, filled the ranks with more effective leadership and helped S.A. achieve its AAA bond rating (now in jeopardy thanks to the charter amendments).

3. Manufactured Border Crisis
Sure, the border’s a few hours south of the Alamo City, but it affects us as if we were situated far closer. Don’t think so? How about that lawsuit Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton slapped on the city for not arresting 12 Guatemalan migrants found in the back of a tractor trailer? While a lot of mainstream news coverage framed the immigration turmoil as a crisis (“Migrant caravan,” anyone?), this is a crisis created by the Trump administration. Apprehensions of people illegally crossing the border is down substantially from earlier dates, according to the feds’ own data. From family separations and tent cities to the militarization of South Texas and imminent (at press time) government shutdown over the border wall, the Orange Leader has been ginning up this catastrophe from the day he took office. And the recent announcement that the administration will force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while processing their claims shows he’s not about to throttle back.

4. Changing Neighborhoods
It’s a no-brainer that gentrification and rising property taxes tightened their squeeze on San Antonio citizens this year. And more center-city residents also fretted they’re being priced out — not just as homeowners but renters — while unaffordable developments continued to spring up in their ‘hoods. Those concerns, coupled with the perception that city staff is more responsive to developers than ordinary folks, spurred a rise in neighborhood activism. Few 2018 news stories better embody residents’ growing anger over the fates and faces of their neighborhoods more than the fight over the Hays Street Bridge — an East Side landmark where Sculley approved a high-density housing development over the recommendation of the Historic and Design Review Commission.

5. Alamo Renovation
After the city presented its first take on the renovation of Alamo Plaza — a glass-encased oddity — citizens leapt up to defend the storied Texas landmark. Months of contentious debate ensued, with boos and jeers frequently punctuating the public meetings. In October, council finally approved a plan that would let the Texas General Land Office oversee the site, close nearby streets and move the repaired Cenotaph 500 feet south. Ultimately, even that wasn’t without controversy. Republican lawmakers and tea party groups continue to decry the Cenotaph move because… um… liberty or something.
click to enlarge AFL-CIO's Linda Chavez Thompson fires up the crowd in front of City Hall after Working Texans for Paid Sick Time delivered its signed petitions to city officials. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • AFL-CIO's Linda Chavez Thompson fires up the crowd in front of City Hall after Working Texans for Paid Sick Time delivered its signed petitions to city officials.
6. Paid Sick Time
Activists and unions members teamed up to gather more than 70,000 city-validated signatures and prod council into approving a measure that would require employers to give workers up to 64 hours of paid sick leave a year. Naturally, business groups objected. The victory showed the left’s ability to win local victories even as the GOP held locks on state and federal government. What’s more, it demonstrated a clear concern among San Antonians about the city’s lingering problems with income inequality. Now, it’s time to see whether the measure survives the upcoming legislative session, in which the state’s Republican majority seems intent on steamrolling municipalities’ ability to make their own rules.

7. Beto O’Rourke
No, the charismatic congressman from El Paso didn’t send Sen. Ted Cruz slithering back under a rock, as many had hoped. But he did energize Texas liberals and moderates enough to make a difference in a metric shit-ton of downballot races. Democrats exceeded expectations by flipping 12 seats in the Texas House, narrowing the GOP’s control and forcing out some of the furthest-right lawmakers — including the guy who called ICE on immigration protesters. In Bexar alone, Democrats picked up 24 county positions. With O’Rourke now polling well as a potential 2020 challenger for Trump, it’s clear his rock-star glitter hasn’t yet flaked off.
click to enlarge BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
8. “Dirty” Deely’s Closure
CPS Energy’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fueled power plant, J.T. Deely, is set to close at year’s end after extensive pressure from environmental groups. The closure is yet another sign of coal’s demise in Texas (despite the Trump administration’s attempts to keep it on life support). This year, the state’s biggest power generator, Luminant, also announced it would close three coal-fired plants that account for about 22 percent of the state’s coal power plant capacity.

9. Carlos Uresti
What’s a year in any big city without a political scandal? And state Sen. Carlos Uresti’s downfall was scandalous indeed. Uresti and co-defendant Gary Cain were found guilty on 20 combined felony charges over their involvement in defunct FourWinds Logistics, a company that dealt in sand used for oil fracking. It would be one thing if the Democrat had taken bribes, but prosecutors laid out a case of straight-up fraud — a classic Ponzi scheme. Uresti resigned his seat and now faces 12 years in the federal pen, on top of paying back millions in restitution. Adding insult to the injury he’d already done to his own party, his reliably Democratic district later flipped to a Republican. (Cue the sad trombone.)

10. Tricentennial
Yeah, we played it safe on this one, but how often does a city get to turn 300 years old? And for the most part, San Antonio’s pulled off the celebration in an admirable and inclusive way. It was surprising to see how many off-the-beaten-path arts and cultural events managed to get Tricentennial designations. And there was even fun drama after the commission’s initial leadership got axed for some high-profile bungles, including last year’s New Year’s Eve festivities. Remember the decision to fork over $232,500 to book REO Speedwagon as headliner? Apparently, nothing says “Happy 300th birthday!” like overpaying for a washed-up classic rock act who’d otherwise be playing a casino or state fair.

Honorable mentions
• The San Antonio Four’s records are expunged
• The Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force lays out an affordable-housing strategy
• The fight over the Hays Street Bridge goes to the Texas Supreme Court
• San Antonio says “no” to the 2020 Republican Convention
• September’s record rain and subsequent floods
• ConnectSA’s transportation plan pulls out of the garage

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