The following interview was with our own Mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg as he took a place on the hot seat to answer some hard hitting questions for our communities. We thank the Mayor for his time and professionalism throughout the entirety of this interview. We hope that our readers enjoy the interview, and if you want more information about the Mayor of San Antonio you can find him on Twitter @Ron_Nirenberg.
GO: What are you seeking in terms of changes to leadership or management at the city and county level after the fallout of the winter storm?
RN: I think that question is a bit premature until we get the results of the selected committee investigation that is looking into the preparation, communication, and overall response. Our selected committee consists of four council members along with a chair, former council member Reed Williams, former State President of the Bar Association Alisa Tatum, along with General Ed Rice and they’re doing a deep dive and getting questions from the community as well as the council to look into exactly what happened in terms of CPS Energy, SAWS (San Antonio Water System), and the overall emergency operations response. So we’re going to look at everything that happened, including triggering events which we know were more about ERCOT, the state mismanagement of the grid, but ultimately those things that happened at the local level that can be changed so that we are in a better position next time. We will make those changes as they are recommended.
GO: What do you think should be done in terms of emergency crisis management at the city and county level after the fallout of the winter storm?
RN: Yeah, one thing that I think that one of the areas that I know there will be recommendations for is coordination between agencies, and that’s not just including the utilities but also the city and county as well as our housing agency, transportation agency, things like that. So coordination is one, also making sure that we have a proactive communication coordination strategy for unforeseen contingencies as you know the energy event created some challenges with regard to communication systems. We got to make sure if those things happen that there are contingencies put in place, particularly for disadvantaged residents. So, despite what, for instance ERCOT may or may not say, about what could happen in conditions on the grid we have to prepare to do wellness checks and things like that on a more proactive basis so that residents regardless of their access and challenges are able to get information timely. Also, that the services that are being provided, there’s fail safes, we’ve got to make sure we’re going back and ensuring that there’s more than one agency that is accountable for communications.
GO: Okay, as a follow-up, is there any thought of implementing a centralized emergency crisis coordinator?
RN: We have one at the county, it’s an overall regional emergency operations center. So, there is one, it’s an EOC coordinator which in any disaster situation is Fire Chief Cepeda. All of the partners, public agencies, and even some private sector critical infrastructure is part of the EOC and that includes our housing authorities, Bexar County as well as San Antonio Housing Authority, VIA, CPS, SAWS, even the fuel management servicers are all a part of the EOC. Obviously the EOC has never been operational during a pandemic, so we’ve got to ensure there’s a routine redundancy built in, and there’s expectations for all of these partners that are part of the EOC at any kind of critical event. That includes agencies that may not always be on the front line of that during a crisis, in particular our housing agencies.
GO: What could current leadership at the city and county levels do at present in order to address the poor responses by SAHA and management personnel as there have been a number of recorded deaths on their watch?
RN: So, yeah obviously we have to wait for their investigation. I’ve requested their investigation of the emergency response from SAHA. Their independent report will be delivered to the committee that I put together and will be briefed at that committee. I’ve asked that SAHA submit to their report to them their findings of their investigation. I think one of the things that we are going to find, and this is not just during critical events at SAHA, there’s got to be a stronger oversight of property management companies that SAHA contracts with in terms of their standard operating procedures during a crisis event. We have got to make sure that there is no broken link in the chain in terms of accountability and oversight of those property management companies involved with those critical events. So meaning that, you know forward deployment, if there is a critical event in theatre you’ve got to depend on your sergeants and all of the soldiers in the field to be able to know procedure in any contingency.
GO: Yes, we have our rules of engagement, or ROE in situations.
RN: Exactly, everyone is accountable to it, and ultimately it flows up to the top. But, what I don’t think is happening right now is that in crisis events like this, in particular one there’s really poor preparation from the state level in terms of a complete shutdown at the energy grid there I think we will find and this will be confirmed when we do the investigation, I believe we will find that there are broken links in rules of engagement between property management companies and SAHA. So, there’s not a standard set of expectations in how those crisis events will be handled by property management companies between themselves and their residents. This is because wellness checks are accountable by the people managing on-site at the property and they’re required to do that, if they’re expected to do that, we depend on them to do it right and we’ve got to make sure this link is not broken.
GO: Is SAHA responsible for that oversight?
RN: Well, they need to be and one of the challenges may be that in the process of engaging with different property management companies there’s not a standard set of requirements and expectations. SAHA is a decades-old agency. They’ve changed over a number of years, we have new leadership as a result of challenges on the board, then I came in and brought new leadership because of the previous challenges. We have got to make sure over time those expectations and everything do not erode. Especially when we get into a situation where there is a crisis of some unforeseen magnitude. We do have the 2011 winter event to go by but in terms of the magnitude and depth of this event it was five times worse in terms of the shutdown of service and the electrical disruptions, etc.
GO: Yeah, the breakdown was 31 years actually, Rep. Tony Tinderholt and Sen. Bob Hall introduced legislation repetitively, especially in 2016 and 2019 where both of those bills were shutdown.
RN: At the Texas Legislature?
GO: Yes, at the Texas Legislature.
RN: That would have standardized emergency operations?
GO: Weatherization of the power lines.
RN: Yes, that was brought up also in 2011 by my peers, Mayor Turner when he was at the legislature and there were repeated failures at the legislature, and you can already see what is happening with the ledge right now. Everything was feverish six weeks ago but now there’s been some time passed so these bills that senators and our representatives that before, in particular Jose Menendez, this legislation has been put forward to address these problems. You’re seeing swaths of the legislature drop away from making that a priority. You’re already seeing some members of the legislature starting to let utility regulators, people you see, ERCOT off of the hook. It’s already starting to happen, we’re seeing a 2011 repeat happen again and that’s why we have to get behind the leadership of the Bexar County delegation, Jose Mendendez, Trey Martinez-Fisher, the folks up there who are fighting to get this addressed.
GO: There have been only six members of the PUC (Public Utility Commission) who have left or resigned, and there is only one member left. They haven’t filled those spots.
RN: They have recently appointed a new chairman, and that chairman has not to my knowledge said anything about specific things to address the current crisis. I mean we can talk about what we need to do in terms of regulation moving forward and I hope that is addressed, but we also have an open fire right now with utilities across the state.
GO: We saw you at the vigil in support of the Asian American community in San Antonio and we thank you for that. What are your thoughts on the recent string of hate messages that are being written on San Antonio businesses apart from what you’ve spoken at the vigil?
RN: Again, I believe this is the wake of a presidency in which this kind of polarized “othering” in minority communities, communities of color has been normalized. That sentence was probably totally and grammatically incorrect but let me say this: In the 12 years beginning with Obama’s presidency and President Obama’s administration, the normalization of hate, messages, acts that at the time President Obama was new to office, was being perpetrated by numbers of a party that was not in power. Then, we saw under this previous presidential administration that kind of activity became even more normalized and empowered by former politicians of a small minority taking over the seats of power. Now they’re being elected to Congress and that has taken the level of hate from normalization to empowered and authorized. It’s incumbent upon everyone, in particular local governments that are the last line of defense of their communities and it is incumbent upon me as an Asian American mayor with Jewish roots to stand up against that kind of hatred and call it out. We are in a very, very dangerous period in the United States with regard to the hatred, xenophobia, and racism that we’ve seen on the fringes become a part of and in some cases, Congressional dialogue. That’s a very, very dangerous thing. You know I keep reflecting on a trip I took to Yad B”Hashem, which is the Holocaust memorial in Israel and if you walk through that museum which is incredibly moving, the first sections of it walks you through chronologically how we got to a fascist Europe and a Germany that was led by Nazi-ism. It’s striking and it’s disturbing to see the first sections of that museum because you can see the proliferation of sentiment from this kind of normalization, the normalizing of anti-immigrant messaging to outright bans on travel and policies that exclude certain members or races, the demonization of certain religions. You can see the progression of what was just sort of, fringe messaging.
GO: The Goebellian propaganda?
RN: Yes, which quickly becomes part of the national dialogue, that ultimately becomes an entire fascist state and you can see some of the roots of that happening not just in our country but across the world. We have got to do everything we can to push that back.
GO: How would you suggest we push that back?
RN: I think that it requires us to call out hate and to strive for an inclusive dialogue that also agrees on universal, fundamental principles of quality, justice, and ensuring that people are treated with dignity no matter what side of the border they are on, where they were born, or what religion they practice.
GO: Were you thinking like propaganda, messaging, or education?
RN: It’s education and it’s also civil dialogue. When you have a member of Congress for instance, being able to put a poster on the wall in her office in Rayburn or wherever it is that basically says that transgender children do not belong in this country and do not deserve the rights afforded to them like every American, that’s a level of bigotry that’s being tolerated in the seat of big government which represents all people. That is where we are right now, it’s very concerning. It’s not about free speech, this is about hate speech and there is a different.
GO: What could you suggest to voters and county residents do proactively to address the racist messaging not only from people in the community, but also their own elected officials? What would you suggest they say to their elected officials to dissuade this hate?
RN: Don’t tolerate it. You can go on Facebook to look at candidate messages who score political points with what we would be hope would be a narrow part of the electorate. I see anti-immigrant messages in the mayoral race, trying to take advantage of the fact that our city is trying to care for over a thousand unaccompanied minors, they are escaping violence south of the border.