By BRAD ROLLINS
The last city council election was not yet a month past when the next one got started with a faceoff between Mayor Susan Narvaiz and a potential council rival for the top job.
Council member John Thomaides, who has been raising funds since last month for a mayoral bid exploratory committee, sponsored a city council discussion of Narvaiz’s annual State of the City address, held with relative fanfare each fall at the San Marcos Activity Center.
Since giving the first such speech four years ago, the mayor has turned the event into something of a civic pageant complete with State of the Union-style shout-outs to local citizens in the audience. Over the years, these heroes in the balcony have included Salvation Army bell-ringers, a retired couple who started a senior center, a convenience store magnate, Bobcat Build student officers, Gary Job Corp. students and the mother of U.S. Army Pvt. Byron Fouty, a Texas State ROTC graduate who has been missing and presumed captured in Iraq since May. One time, the procession even included a dozen or more Katrina evacuees who presented Narvaiz with an elaborate, feathered Mardi Gras costume rescued from the hurricane. A wornout-looking old man took the microphone from Narvaiz and in a thick Cajun accent thanked the mayor for opening her arms to families fleeing the devastation. Alot of people were teary-eyed and it was a geniunely moving moment when the crowd errupted into applause.
In other words, like the State of the Union, the State of the City is supposed to be theater even if it is community theater. The speech is usually weighed down in an exhausting list of accomplishments and goals with every public works project, city employee and civic group shoe-horned in — something, in other words, for everyone.
Her address last year was 17 pages long in 12-point type — a total of 5,933 words. She used more than a few of them for what she called a bold and candid assessment of the city’s future, calling 2007 her most difficult so far as mayor.
“While some of us have hope, and while I as your leader can see so clearly what we need to go forward as a community, the truth is that I have not been successful in securing an agreement by the elected body on what our shared vision should be, at this important juncture in the life of our city,” she said.
She added, “…No clear vision, at a time we can least afford to be meek about what we truly want as a community or the courage to accept what we are and work to change it. … we are all involved but it has been more about getting what we want for our small group of friends and less about what is in the best interest of the larger community. More about hanging on to anger from yesterday and not letting it go for tomorrow.”
Coming as it did the day before the start of early voting, Thomaides and others viewed the comments as an appeal to oust two incumbents locked in close re-election bids. In the Nov. 7 election, Betsy Robertson ended up losing her race by about 30 votes to Kim Porterfield; Gaylord Bose won his by three votes over challenger Jude Prather.
So during one of the newly recomposed council’s first meetings, Thomaides and Bose called for a public discussion of the speech’s timing, pointing out that the address is scheduled for Oct. 13 this year — less than a month before the mayoral election. Narvaiz is preparing to seek a third term in the November general election; Thomaides is considering one and seems likely to jump in. (Neither, by the way, is likely to declare a candidacy because of a city charter provision that requires city officeholders to resign if they declare for a new office or re-election before the start of candidate filing.)
When the issue came up — number 30 out of 33 items on the agenda — Thomaides pointed out that the event is paid from a city fund for council projects and requires staff time from a couple dozen city employees including departmet heads who man informational booths. Staging the address costs about $1,500, city clerk Shelley Goodwin said.
“Because of the timing being so close to election day a lot of the comments I heard reflected that the speech is seen as more of a political event than a report on the city. I feel very strongly that council has a voice in timing and would ask that the state of the city would occur after the election is completed,” Thomaides said.
Bose followed up: “From my perspective, it can be a report to the city or it can be a political speech that can influence what’s being said by the people. I think we should basically stay with the facts, not opinions.”
After they were finished speaking to a nearly empty council chamber, Narvaiz asked if anyone else had something to add. No one did.
“In that case,” the mayor said. “I will proceed with my plans at this time.”
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