Friday, March 9, 2018

The Trouble with Councilman Brockhouse

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 12:24 PM

  • Facebook / Councilman Greg Brockhouse
Editor's Note: The following is Their Town, a column of opinion and analysis.

Thursday at City Council, Councilman Greg Brockhouse took on attorney Amy Hardberger with all the finesse of a teenager trying mixed martial arts for the first time. Afterward, an angry Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales blasted his comments from the other side of the dais, calling them sexist.

Her exchange with Brockhouse has been all over the news. You can watch the actual session here.

But allegations of misogyny aren't the entire story.

First, some background.

Hardberger was in chambers to win council's blessing to join SAWS's board of trustees. Except for Brockhouse, it wasn't a difficult vote. Her credentials are impeccable.

She is the associate dean of the St. Mary's University School of Law and a water law expert. She earned a bachelor's and master's degrees in geology at Earlham College in Indiana and UTSA, respectively. At UTSA, Hardberger focused on hydrology because she was fascinated by the mechanics of water. She earned her Texas Tech law degree partly because she wanted to fight to ensure everyone, from the dirt poor to the rich, has access to Texas's most precious natural resource.

Two men also won council's endorsement for the SAWS board on Thursday. David McGee, who's already served as a SAWS trustee for two years, is president and CEO of Amegy Bank's Central Texas region, and a former chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. The other was Eduardo Parra, chief executive of the civil-engineering firm Parra and Co.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who picked the three appointees, needled Brockhouse after the councilman finished questioning Hardberger. "Would you like to ask the male candidates questions as well?" he said. "Because they went through the same process and also will be representing your constituents."

Brockhouse said he didn't grill either of them because they wouldn't represent quadrants on the SAWS board that included his district, which takes in the Far Northwest Side. Hardberger is the appointee for the southwest quadrant, which encompasses much of District 6.

He also said he didn't question her qualifications, but "the process" that brought her nomination to the fore.

Brockhouse voted against all three appointees. But that was only because he couldn't convince his colleagues to separate the nominations so he could officially flip-off Hardberger alone. The vote for the resolution was 10-1.

Brockhouse told Hardberger he opposed her appointment because "I'm concerned with your beliefs about development and with your beliefs on water conservation." They don't line up with the interests of District 6 residents, he added.

The irony is that Hardberger has been one of the toughest and most consistent and credible critics of SAWS's planned Vista Ridge water pipeline. The $3-billion-plus project is on track to begin delivering water from Burleson County in 2020, and will continue pushing up rates for SAWS customers.

In December, Council OK'd rate hikes for 2018 and 2019, small slices of which will be dedicated to Vista Ridge. Brockhouse voted against the increases, along with Councilmen John Courage and Clayton Perry, and sharply questioned the need for the 142-mile pipeline project.

So what's the deal with his opposition to the daughter of one-time Mayor Phil Hardberger, her gender aside?

Part of it is raw politics.

At some point, whether in 2019 or some election beyond, Brockhouse will almost certainly run for mayor, probably against Nirenberg. Phil Hardberger was one of Nirenberg's earliest and arguably most important supporters. If you're building a case to run against Nirenberg, Amy Hardberger's appointment will look downright tribal — one San Antonio power doing a favor for another power.

Part of it is Brockhouse's brand of populism.

Like the fire union that used to pay him for political work, Brockhouse flirts with that aw-shucks kind of populism that says everything would be OK if the professional politicians, technocrats, academics and so-called experts would just get lost. Hardberger fits neatly into those last two categories.

Hence Brockhouse's jeering takedown: "I doubt that you understand the residents in the community I represent."

Let's be clear: Too often lawmakers are awfully comfortable sharing a bubble with other insiders. They forget residents want accountability and for their tax dollars to be as carefully managed as their own household budgets. Real leaders know this, and they're in tune with their constituents. But they also know when to listen to expert advice and make changes that will benefit the city as a whole, even if a chunk of the electorate objects.

Part of it is... Brockhouse has a point.

Nirenberg has the power to pick SAWS board appointees, and he didn't hesitate to exercise it. He also failed to unite council members behind the decision, giving them little or no say in the selection. That's another way of saying he's not rallying them — or their constituents — behind his vision for San Antonio.

Nirenberg apparently didn't learn the inclusion lesson from Phil Hardberger, a strong mayor who also tended to the needs and concerns of council members.

After all, it was Courage, not Brockhouse, who said: "I would have liked to have had more collaboration and input because this is such an important decision."

Same message. Brockhouse just said it more pointedly.

That's Brockhouse. He's ambitious, impatient, combative and talks pointedly even when he's saying good morning.

Full disclosure: I worked in Councilwoman Ana Sandoval's office for seven months, mostly as her co-chief of staff.

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