By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
Though little else about the November mayoral election in San Marcos is predictable, the racing form accurately called Thursday’s Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) debate at the San Marcos Activities Center.
Challengers David Newman and Daniel McCarthy played offense, while incumbent Mayor Susan Narvaiz played defense for nearly an hour as the queue of mostly students and young citizens brought their questions to the candidates.
Citizens given to complaints about city politics can’t argue that they don’t have a choice in the matter, which ranges from a two-term incumbent to a Texas State student to a 20-year San Marcos homeowner with a long history of community activity.
As the debate underlined, though, the election is ultimately about the public’s degree of satisfaction with Narvaiz, the highly visible mayor lauded by some because her strong exertion of the office pushes change, and reviled by others because her strong exertion of the office centralizes power. In a town so historically gridlocked as San Marcos, perhaps they amount to the same.
Unlike the other candidates, Narvaiz has a record to run on, which gives the other candidates a record to oppose. From her posture, Narvaiz consistently answered “We’re doing x,” whenever a citizen or opponent said, “We need to do x.” By such means, Narvaiz pointed out that a traffic signal synchronization will be complete in October, that she has overseen an $10,000 increase in per capita income, added 14 miles of sidewalks and 9.7 miles of bike lanes, and promoted higher downtown density as a tenet of “smart growth.”
However, as the city’s direction is ultimately a choice of emphasis, citizens are able to change that direction with every election. Accordingly, each candidate chooses different points of emphasis.
Narvaiz, 50, first won election in 2004. She emphasizes a pro-business agenda, arguing that her relationships in the business community enable the city to move expeditiously in times of challenge. Further, Narvaiz says, the revenues resulting from business growth give the city its best chance for funding high-dollar projects for citizens who want those amenities and don’t want higher taxes.
Newman, 52, is a semi-retired transport pilot who says the city needs to focus on its neighborhoods as “its heart and soul,” which means discouraging sprawl, while producing professional employment worthy of Texas State graduates. Newman also is campaigning on an aim to cut ten percent from every city department’s budget.
McCarthy, 20, is a Texas State student who says the city needs to preserve its local culture, promote local artists, advocate a green economy build a sustainable city.
On only one issue did all three candidates straightforwardly agree. All three support a non-binding initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot extending the city’s bar hours to 2 a.m. from the present closing times of midnight everyday except Saturday, which is 1 a.m.
Narvaiz acknowledged that she has changed her position since her days on the city council in 2002, saying the development of a downtown master plan has established a move towards making downtown into more of an entertainment district. Narvaiz added that investors are more likely to put money into the city given more hours to generate revenues. McCarthy reacted with the one zinger of the night: “It’s good for business, which, to my understanding is why Mayor Narvaiz has changed her position from safety to revenue.”
On every other issue raised by voters, the three candidates put forth discernibly different goals and details
Road bond: Hays County is putting before its voters a request for $207 million in bonding authority to build and enhance roads. Among the projects are $170 million in state roads for which the county would fund the up-front costs with a promise from the state to re-pay up to $133 million over 20 years.
Narvaiz is and has been unabashedly in favor of the bond issue, which would support a loop on the city’s southeastern edge, among other roads. Indeed, Narvaiz has been among the political leaders in Hays County to promote the issue.
“We have needs that are 25 years old now, and if we don’t get this money from the state, we will never get an opportunity like this again,” Narvaiz said.
Newman said “the jury is still out” on the road bonds, adding his concern about public indebtedness and a belief that the roads would encourage sprawl. McCarthy said he agrees with Newman that the bond needs more consideration.
“I’m all for taking state money, when we can get it,” Newman said, “but I believe we need to concentrate on our infrastructure within our downtown area in our city center before we expand too far out too quickly.”
SF-6 ordinance: The city has long kept an ordinance on its books prohibiting more than two unrelated persons from sharing a residence. The matter persists as a lightning rod among Texas State students claiming persecution and permanent residents worried about raucous college households taking over their neighborhoods.
Only Newman spoke in broad agreement with the ordinance, and even he allowed that full enforcement would not happen overnight.
“The problem is that we haven’t enforced this for five or ten years and, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s kind of hard to put it back in,” Newman said. “It would take probably five or ten years to re-establish that zoning condition to put neighborhoods back in the shape they need to be in. We have a code enforcement department that is not enforcing it. We need to take a look at what they’re doing and try to implement a program to enforce the zoning.”
McCarthy said the problems between students and residents would best be handled by personal contact among them, adding that cities shouldn’t be in the business of telling property owners who can live in their properties. Further, McCarthy indicated that the city should establish specificity about multi-family housing in its codes.
Narvaiz said enforcement is a problem because the ordinance doesn’t stand up well to legal challenge and that the city council is trying to strengthen the law. Regardless, Narvaiz expressed opposition to the ordinance, saying, as an example, that elderly people would not be able to share expenses in a single residence.
“The challenge is that it’s better if it’s in a deed restriction and you can do it through a private lawyer,” Narvaiz said. “We have found, when we have tried to take it through the court system, that the municipal court isn’t the best place to take it through the court. … I believe it’s behavior and you shouldn’t regulate an entire city when it’s behavior of an individual.”
Economic development: All three candidates suggested that the city should leverage a relationship with Texas State, but their specific proposals varied.
Newman said the city should position itself as a low-cost alternative to doing business in Austin, Narvaiz said the city should seek employers who specifically match the interests of Texas State graduates, and McCarthy said the city needs to beef up its business infrastructure with high-speed internet and improvements to the San Marcos Municipal Airport.
“Software companies are exactly the kind of companies we need here,” Newman said. “We need companies where the product is thinking and brain power, such as architectural firms, engineering firms, software development firms. I believe we need to partner with the university and create some meaningful program whereby we can target companies that need to expand. The cost of doing business in Austin is extremely high, the cost of living is high. We should be able to offer San Marcos as a logical destination.”
Said Narvaiz, “I’m advocating that there has to be a different way to do economic development. Instead of sitting in a room and saying what we want, we need to see what the students are graduating in and attract those companies.”
Narvaiz didn’t specifically rule out software companies, but she said Texas State students and programs lean particularly towards forensic science, health care, and civil and mechanical engineering.
Transportation: Narvaiz pointed to the additions of sidewalks and bike lanes, the city’s commitment to commuter rail and the opening of the Wonder World Drive overpass are signs of her success. Narvaiz also said she has reached agreement with Texas State President Denise Trauth on a single mass transit system, for which the city is eligible for more federal funding since declaring its population in excess of 50,000.
“I think we’re not only playing catch up, but we’re moving ahead,” she said.
Newman and McCarthy both said more emphasis on bike lanes would enhance safety and provide willing residents with an alternative to fueling their automobiles.
“I believe the people in San Marcos want these things,” Newman said. “It’s just up to the San Marcos city government to get on board with these initiatives.”
Wireless Internet: A year ago, a private company went to the city with a proposal to provide free wireless Internet. Within months, the cost of that proposal grew to $5 million and the city decided to spend its money elsewhere. However, the possibility of free wireless remains a growing concern.
“Free wireless Internet would pay for itself over time just in the money the city pays to the Internet companies,” McCarthy said.
Newman said citizens with whom he has spoken speak of the wireless dalliance as “a failed initiative,” and went so far as to link the city’s decision against the purchase with its development of the Embassy Suites hotel and conference center set to open soon at Interstate-35 and McCarty Lane.
“That would have set us apart as a city not only in the United States, but the world, and greatly promoted our professional job attractiveness,” Newman said of free public wireless. “I believe we took the money we were going to spend on that and bought ourselves a hotel and convention center.”
In fact, the conference center was long under construction before the wireless initiative even went before the council late last year, so the city did not make such a direct choice.
That was not the only jab Newman took at the conference center. Newman suggested that Narvaiz set up a sweet deal for local developer Terry Gilmore when the city purchased the latter’s 250 acres at the headwaters of Spring Lake, which was the originally intended location for the conference center. At $5 million to buy the land and move the project elsewhere, the land would have gone for $20,000 per acre, which, according to Newman, is roughly three times its value.
However, said Narvaiz outside the debate, the city obtained appraisals for the land in accord with the purchase price. Further, the city’s share of the expenditure was $2 million, not $5 million. The other money came from numerous sources, including $2.1 from private donations, $700,000 from Hays County and $1 million from the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife.
Doubtless, San Marcos voters haven’t yet heard the last word on this mayoral race, the outcome of which is uncertain not just because every city election is uncertain, but because the presidential election stands to increase turnout. And time is always a factor. As of today, exactly one month remains before the election.