San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 10th, 2010
City looks to create neighborhood commission


During a break in last week’s San Marcos City Council meeting, Mayor Susan Narvaiz has a discussion with Anita Fuller, who represents the Franklin Square Homeowners Association for the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA). On the far left is Councilmember Ryan Thomason, and on the far right is councilmember Gaylord Bose. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

While San Marcos city officials lay the groundwork for a new commission tasked with addressing the concerns of various neighborhoods, critics of the idea worry that it would have the effect of shutting out the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), a 30-year-old consortium of neighborhood groups that has been the voice of neighborhood affairs for two generations.

San Marcos Councilmember John Thomaides said the proposed 13-member neighborhood commission stands to meet difficulty in achieving quorums and predicted that the commission may sunset as a result. More directly, though, Thomaides said CONA already is available to serve the purpose of the proposed neighborhood commission.

“But, in my opinion, we don’t utilize them in this way,” Thomaides said. “I think we should utilize them in this way. That’s my opinion. Because I know what neighborhood representatives do, and I know what board and commission members do. And my concern is, how can you know how to best represent a neighborhood if you don’t hold a meeting of the neighbors?”

The proposed 13-member neighborhood commission would include 11 members appointed by the city council. The remaining two members would be appointed by Texas State University Student Affairs Division and Texas State’s Associated Student Government (ASG).

Eleven of the commissioners would each represent a city sector as defined by the Horizons Master Plan, an urban planning document adopted by ordinance in 1996 after extensive resident input. The neighborhood commission is proposed to be an advisory body to the city council, the city manager, and the other boards and commissions.

City staff initially proposed nine representatives to represent the nine city sectors. However, the council directed staff to add two more seats after Councilmembers Kim Porterfield and Chris Jones said nine members would leave inadequate representation from the east side of Interstate-35. The east side of I-35 is generally a lower income, more ethnically-diverse region of the city. The two sectors located entirely on the east side of I-35 would each be represented on the proposed neighborhood commission by two members, as suggested by Jones.

The council may reapportion the neighborhood commission seats after April 1, 2011, when the 2010 census data is released, and after the city creates a new master plan. Each existing city sector includes an average of four neighborhood associations, according to City of San Marcos Director of Development Services Chuck Swallow, who said there are 35 or 36 neighborhood organizations in the city.

Thomaides protested that representation by sector isn’t fine enough to address the concerns of specific neighborhoods.

“I do actually have a problem with the sectors because, as Mr. Swallow said, there’s thirty-some-odd distinct neighborhoods,” Thomaides said. “And I would submit to you that in Sector 1, for instance, you have Dunbar, you have Heritage, you have Westover, and you have part of Oak Heights all the way up to Franklin (Drive). And then the other side of Franklin is a different sector.”

Jones and Mayor Susan Narvaiz expressed support for the currently-proposed sector-style of representation for the neighborhood commission.

“I think one of the reasons I was highly supportive of going to this model was because I felt like those neighborhood reps on the east side were less represented in CONA,” Jones said.

City staff is drafting an ordinance that would create the neighborhood commission.

“There are fascinating things being done in other cities through these neighborhood commissions, that engage the citizenry, and I’m all for elevating our commitment to neighborhoods through a formal commission,” Narvaiz said.

Jones said issues faced by residents on the east side of the freeway not sufficiently addressed include building foundation problems and drainage problems.

Councilmember Gaylord Bose said the proposed neighborhood commission model would issue less representation of neighborhoods and more bureaucracy.

“I just see the grassroots part of it just kind of disappearing and going to the background,” Bose said.

Jones said CONA “comes with a lot of baggage,” which, he said, is probably an erroneous perception, but “that’s the way it is.” Jones said the neighborhood commission would give CONA “a stronger voice” at the city council because councilmembers may take issues more seriously if they are not associated too strongly with CONA.

But CONA President Amy Kirwin said her group effectively addresses neighborhood concerns at the staff level, though she added that CONA’s relationship with the city isn’t what it used to be.

“We used to really partner well with the city, for some reason,” Kirwin said. “We don’t go to council as much because we’ve gotten to know city staff so well. So, we actually try to work with city staff and just go to them to talk about issues that we have. So, council may not be hearing what we’re doing, but I know that a lot of staff members know who all the neighborhood reps are. They are constantly in communication with them.”

Kirwin did not express explicit opposition to the proposed neighborhood commission, but said the council should utilize people who already volunteer and “who know a lot about what’s happening in the neighborhoods.” Kirwin said each neighborhood group represented in CONA defines how it chooses its representative or representatives.

“The sectors are so broad, and the neighborhoods are a little more — they focus in more, and there’s a little bit more continuity in what the neighborhood makeup is,” Kirwin said. “So, when you see a sector representative, have they gone out and really gone on the ground and looked at and talked with all the people in those neighborhoods? And if you get someone from Sector 2, say, who’s from Willow Creek as the representative, are they going to understand the issues that are happening in Westover or Oak Heights?”

The neighborhood commission concept plan presented to the city council said the commission would consider issues pertinent to overall neighborhood quality, foster better relations between the city and Texas State, provide guidance for city programs and advise the city about code enforcement.

The plan also said the commission would collaborate with other boards, commissions and neighborhood groups to seek solutions to problems and issues involving beautification, transportation, parking, traffic calming, and relations between students and homeowners.

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0 thoughts on “City looks to create neighborhood commission

  1. For neighborhood issues, the Council needs to go to CONA for direction and not ‘reinvent the wheel” with another commission. CONA is an organization of neighborhood representatives interested in each other’s neighborhoods and the good of San Marcos. If a section of the city is not represented in CONA it is because no representative from that neighborhood has come forward and participated. CONA WANTS all neighborhoods within its organization and wants to hear the concerns of all neighbors. Any commission chosen would have to go through CONA for neighborhood concerns so why not have the council go direct to CONA. CONA might not have been as active in the past few years as it once was but that is no reason to set it aside. Use it! Validate the organization and I assure you, it will grow and be much more representative of our neighborhoods than a hand selected commission would be.

  2. Neighborhoods will still have CONA representatives and the organization is working to find representatives in every neighborhood. Neighbors will still be able to bring their concerns to their CONA representatives and the organization will still work to get those issues resolved. This will simply be one more avenue for CONA to explore for resolution, in addition to the various city departments we already work with, and it will not prevent us from approaching Council directly, just as any other individual or group can.

    It also provides another forum for residents in neighborhoods without representation. Of course, those residents are always welcome at CONA meetings and we would love to have them volunteer as representatives.

    Hopefully, this signals a new commitment, on the part of Council, to protect our neighborhoods and address the issues that many neighborhoods have been dealing with (and pleading for help with) for years.

  3. Considering how actively neighborhoods recently attended both Planning and Zoning and subsequent Council meetings to protest parts of the Buis Project and its 452 apartments to be developed at the new intersection of Bishop and Craddock, it would seem that existing neighborhood leadership is quite alive and active.

    Is it , then, more a matter of Mayor Narvais and some Council members wishing to have the role of appointing their own neighborhood leadership in order to quell protest to development as voiced by those chosen by neighborhoods?

  4. A few questions for anyone who knows the answers:
    Is CONA an official city board or commission? I thought they were a club. Do they have a web page? How does a person get elected to CONA?
    How will the members of the Neighborhood Commission be appointed?
    Can someone be a representative on both CONA and the Neighborhood Commission?
    I would appreciate a clearer explanation of the differences between CONA as it is now and the Neighborhood Commission as it is proposed. This article says CONA has 30 years of experience spanning 2 generations but I still don’t get it…

  5. It sounds like the new commission will do about what CONA is already doing so why start up another group? It is so much easier to get things done if there is only one organization to go to with concerns instead of two or more. It would seem that it would be more practical to have either CONA or the commission and work with the one selected to get the best representation possible for the neighborhoods. And, I would vote for CONA since it already has a track record and functioning. If you believe CONA needs direction, then give it to them. Again, validation from the Council would go a long way.

  6. The new commission will likely do a subset of what CONA does. It is unlikely that the commission will be meeting with each neighborhood with any regularity. There is far too much for 13 people to cover. In fact, each neighborhood, ideally, has two CONA representatives and many have block captains, to further help with communications. If there is a water main break, it is unlikely that this commission is going to make sure that each resident of each impacted neighborhood knows about it. It is unlikely that they will communicate to neighbors, about break-ins and things like that. It seems VERY unlikely that they will coordinate the neighborhood night out events and it seems unlikely that they will serve as a liaison to the police, fire and other city departments, for the various neighborhoods, with regard to day-to-day issues.

    In all probability, the commission will be a place that CONA can go (or individual citizens), to discuss larger, long term issues that don’t have clear solutions, or require specific budgeting and planning, where a 3-minute comment period is not really sufficient.

    That is, if this is well thought out. There is a good possibility, based on the track record of other boards and commissions, that they will be given no clear direction, leading to problems getting quorums, sporadic activity, frustration among board members, regular resignations and eventual sunsetting, as mentioned by Mr. Thomaides.

  7. I thought it was a commission of 9 folks…. you mentioned 13, Ted. You said that the commission would not meet with regularity with the neighborhoods…. that is the problem, I believe. If they are to represent the neighborhoods, they need to meet and know what is occurring. As a neighborhood, the concerns are alot of things to include zoning and break-ins, as you mentioned. It is important for our neighbors to know if there is a problem with theft/break-ins and that can be addressed with the Council if it gets too troublesome. I think that adding more folks to work with our neighborhoods will only confuse the situation and make for nothing to be done. Keep what is already there… but make it better! Get that representation from the neighborhoods that are not part of CONA…. we need each other and want to ensure our neighborhoods are the best they can be. Just one organization can do that… add more and it then becomes a confusing mess with nothing being done.

  8. Mike, CONA is not a city sponsored board or commission. It is an independent organization, comprised of two representatives selected by the residents of each neighborhood in San Marcos.

    Those representatives are there to communicate issues to the residents of the neighborhoods and escalate neighborhood concerns to the appropriate people within the city. These issues run the gamut from minor construction and maintenance, to major development, like the Buie Tract; from neighborhood watch programs, to infrastructure issues, to food drives, etc.

    Each neighborhood has its own unique issues. Many of these issues involve conflicting views between groups of neighbors, or neighborhoods and CONA representatives work to ensure that all of their neighbors are heard and that their concerns are taken into consideration.

    Many of these issues do not need to go to City Council and would not go to this commission, either. They may be worked out directly with various city departments, or handled entirely within a given neighborhood or group of neighborhoods.

    Many aren’t even issues; just activities, like neighborhood night out, neighborhood watch, notifying the neighbors about work the city may be doing in the neighborhood, etc.

  9. Jean, in my experience, these sorts of boards and commissions do not have time to meet with the neighborhoods. It will be up to the neighborhoods to determine what to bring to the commission. That really isn’t any different than today, except that CONA representatives would escalate certain issues to the commission, rather than Council. Just as is the case with all of the other, similar boards and commissions, the issue can still be taken to Council, regardless of the outcome of any discussions with the commission.

    The rest of the issues, which never went to Council in the first place, will continue to be handled the same way they always were.

    That’s how I see it all unfolding, anyway.

  10. Ted, thanks for the explanation.

    In almost 20 years of living in San Marcos I have never been asked to select, elect or vote for my neighborhood representative to CONA. I don’t know how to contact CONA – do they have a phone number, email or web site? Are their meetings publicized? If so, where – (please be it not the SMDR!)? So exactly how can CONA possibly represent me and my interests?

    It looks like CONA does sponsor a few political debates – that’s good as long as no endorsements are a result. There are NO endorsements, right?

    Just in case you think I am “picking on” CONA, I would have the same questions (and more) for the city regarding the Neighborhood Commission.

    Seems to me we have bigger issues to deal with…. and this topic is just a distraction. I would think the City Council could be more productive with it’s meeting time and let the city staff like Chuck Swallow get to work on better ways of knowing who lives within 200 feet of a zoning change!

  11. Mike, your neighborhood may not have a representative. Many don’t, which we are trying to resolve. Until recently, I believe it has been left to each neighborhood to decide how to select their representatives.

    As far as I know, CONA has never endorsed candidates.

    Most of your other questions are answered here: http : //www . (remove the spaces)

    Yes, City Council probably has better things to do, than form this particular commission. I have my own theories about why they are doing it, but those theories don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

  12. Part of that didn’t come out right. Until recently, I believe it has been left to each neighborhood to select representatives or not. Now, CONA is looking at proactively reaching out to the neighborhoods that don’t have representatives.

    As far as I know, *how* a neighborhood chooses its representatives is still up to the neighborhood.

  13. Sounds to me like the Council is getting tired from (rightfully) catching flak from CONA so they’re trying to assemble a council of ‘yes-men’ in its place. Nothing annoys a politician like us “little people” disagreeing with their decisions from ‘on high’, you know.

  14. I wonder if there is someone who actually knows how CONA works instead of “believing” how it works, and who understands it’s history could jump in here?

  15. Feel free to correct me where I am wrong, Chris. If you’re looking for a fight, you’ll have to chum the water elsewhere.

  16. Don’t blame me, blame Chris. Happens that, once upon a time (1973), San Marcos adopted its first zoning ordinance. As might be expected, much needed to be remediated, negotiated, and aired publicly in order to set the course that would bring development into some semblance of orderliness and logic, including finding ways to transition some pre-existing anomalies–livestock pens in neighborhoods and other concerns over incompatible uses. Among other problems, the proliferation of new apartments that began with the sudden growth spurt of SWT and the University’s inability/unwillingness to provide more campus housing. Not to mention a concurrent seller’s market which made the ownership of rental property so lucrative that owning and flipping it and renting it, often surreptitiously, somewhat a village sport, especially for faculty members with a bit of speculative money to spare. Renting to multiples of students rather than singles, pairs, or quartets being economically a self-starter and making purchase loans truly easy to get, a boom was on. These things happened for the remainder of the ’70’s.

    At the same time, the City had a growth spurt and a rise in median income, the former local industries of ranching, cotton and grain farming, and the primary Hays County export (I kid thee not!) sand and grave–being in decline as land became more in demand for new “suburbs” such as Laurel Estates, which were subject only to sparse County rules and outside the City’s taxing authority, planning jurisdiction, for the most part, and above all, taxation authority. One could not “swing a dead cat,” as Mark Twain said, without hitting a Realtor/builder/developer, and several did all three, purchasing cheap ranch land–like most places in Texas–for building, speculating, or both..

    Things began to stir in many sections of the City as SWT’s and new development, especially a wave of new, “affordable” duplexes and quadruplexes in established areas, where the infrastructure was already in place; thus no cost beyond hookups for that, especially things like code-specified rights of way and existing street widths, however meager. Importantly, such transactions could be done very quickly, thus profitably, even for “little guys.”

    The long transition from campus-adjacent boarding houses like the big ones on Guadalupe Street was done. Further, there was great fear, with some very real reason, that the University would buy out neighbors and properties around the campus to make rapid growth possible. Bit here, bit there, and as a neighborhood shrank
    and was devalued, BINGO! Space for another facility, driving the edge of nearby neighborhoods further out. Any
    thinking person could see that the campus was landlocked, despite the purchase of the former San Marcos Baptist Academy (now West) campus in 1979.

    The whole thing came to a head for several simultaneous reasons. First, the City Council was quite visibly tilted, in fact, given over, to real estate, development, and other interests favoring “build, Baby, build,” and mostly indisposed to any regulatory hurdles. One of the causal events was the Council’s occasional over-riding of Board and Commission recommendations. In particular, The Timbers Apartments on Peques behind Sessom came for approval under an old, pre-zoning “pre-approval.” The location was environmentally sensitive, backed up directly in the faces of the neighborhood on the West of Mimosa Circle, and was deemed inappropriate by many citizens for those reasons, proximity of runoff to the River, proposed highly invasive lighting, and other questionable matters.
    The Council approved the project, soon after which the Mayor resigned and left.

    A large handful of citizens from areas affected by the policy situation at City Hall vowed to organize and move for greater diversity and accountability on the dais and in the boards and commissions, which then as now were nominated by Council Members, then as now mostly “favorable” persons in Council’s view. The Greater San Marcos Council of Neighborhood Associations (for so it began) developed its own structure and bylaws and recruited and person interested in neighborhood life and in preserving the character of the City as it grew–which then, as now,
    was inevitable. “The Neighborhoods” became a force to deal with for all, a bulwark of one’s “home as castle,”
    on one hand, “the anti-development crowd” on the other. San Marcos went from being a town to being a City, in other words, representing the two universal points of view in every city in this country.

    Beginning in 1980, the entire balance of City Government swung toward heritage, environmental, and commu-
    nity life, including sustainability and quality of life. Leaders of the group volunteered for Boards and Commissions, and within a couple of elections, the development community per se had lost every Council seat. The next step was to be, with the aid of several faculty specialists in urban planning and political science, to mount not only a Master Plan, but an exemplary one. In most minds, the thrust was to slow development to a manageable pace, to openly invite the best practitioners, and to follow the plea of a local banker to “Set the target still, and shine some light on it and we can hit it. Just be consistent. We can’t hit a moving target in the dark.”

    I am surely not claiming credit, but the planning process we developed went through several more iterations on my watch as Chair of the Plannng Commission. It was designed to be coherent and durable, over time. It was designed to include the points of view of all citizens from all interests. It was designed to undergo continuous update (thus the
    formal Capital Improvements Plan, for one example.) It was designed to eliminate loopholes and inconsistencies.
    It was adopted by ordinance in order to protect it from whimsical treatment or simply being ignored.

    Not only the Horizons Plan, but several other planning programs integrated into it, racked up an impressive list of recognitions for excellence over the ’80’s and ’90’s, as did some of our model ordinances and Planning personnel.
    Through the entire course, the Council of Neighborhood Associations was the planning anchor for the Ciity–its ETJ expansions, its utility developments, its street upgrades and downtown improvements, a commitment to open spaced and careful environmental considerations. Of course, when the perceived threat to good order was quelled, the organization settled into many routine complaints and localized responses.

    Most of the original membership gave way to new successors. But the organization still is recognized at election time as a presence one had best at least APPEAR to consider, even to cater to. There have been some discussions of recall, there have been citizens drafted to learn city government and then only stand for election, and there have been some narrow elections tipped by CONA. They are the citizens’ radar, and tone-deaf officials must pay attention–likely NOT by interposing a layer of insulation between CONA and the accountable policymakers who are now even paid to listen to concerned citizens. Surely officials must know that they still cannot shirk accountability if a healthy number of active citizens are involved. Pure democracy in the American style.

  17. yeah, I asked for it alright. Thanks, Mayor!
    I will add that over the last few years of Susan’s Reign, CONA has been totally bashed, beaten and treated with open contempt by City Hall. Anyone who thinks this proposed “Neighborhood Commission” is anything but an obvious attempt by She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to circumvent and negate CONA is either a fool or a real estate agent. But this is what you get when you have a Susan Narvaiz instead of a Billy Moore. duh…

    CONA worked for years to have a Neighborhood Coordinator position in the Planning Department, and finally got one in 1999 or so. This person (first Penny, then Kate Elrod) was an invaluable resource to not only CONA but to any citizen who had a question, concern, complaint… She acted as a liason between CONA and the City. She helped us with agendas and notifications for our meetings, kept and printed the CONA Rep contact list, produced and printed flyers for meetings and events like neighborhood clean-ups, and head-up the annual survey done with CONA and the City. This position no longer exists…
    The City gave us the use of the Activity Center free of charge for our monthly meetings. Susan put a stop to that a couple of years ago. Last month we met at someone’s home…
    The City Manager mandated an annual CIP meeting with CONA and, well, forced all Department Directors and others to attend. City Council always attended as well. It was an opportunity for citizens to question or comment on a variety of topics and issues. (I’m pretty sure Larry Gilly wore kevlar to these meetings… )
    Every year there was a Neighborhood Survey taken. The City printed the survey and presented it to CONA at our April meeting. CONA reps distributed them in their neighborhoods and turned them into the Neighborhood Coordinator who compiled the information and distributed the issues/concerns raised to the appropriate City staff to address. The CONA Survey Analysis Results were provided at the June CONA meeting.
    2003 was the last survey taken by the City.
    These are just a few examples of how the City has slowly and systematically tried to chip away at a once powerful partnership that worked for over 20 years.

    The City recognized CONA as an important body and were supportive of our organization and our mission.
    That’s not to say they didn’t think we were a pain in the ass sometimes, but they understood who they worked for and we had a healthy relationship. We put our people on every board and commission to represent views and needs and concerns at every level of government including Council. (for a time the Planning and Zoning Commission had MINORITIES on it! Go figure..)

    Anyway, I’m not sure why CONA has been sleeping lately. I took a couple of years off, and so did others. I for one was burned-out from all the intense work that comes with getting things like water quality protections adopted and our land development code updated. I thought that with all the hard work and these protections in place, it was safe to take a break from watching every Council and P&Z meeting.
    Well, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong.
    CONA is ‘bulking up’ now and we are going to purge City Hall in November. Wait for it… : )

  18. @ Ted- I don’t want to fight. I’m pretty exhausted from the last couple of months, truth be told. I just thought it was time for somebody who has been around for a while to jump in. And he did.

  19. As a relative latecomer property owner-resident, I appreciate the history on neighborhood organizations and city government of others commenting on this site.. It seems pretty clear to me that the major difference in mayor and council -appointed representation of neighborhoods and CONA is just that: One is council-appointed, the other is citizen-elected. So it would appear pretty clear that goal and result of this ordinance must be to nullify the existing structure of direct citizen input because citizens’ protest are inconvenient and not necessarily in agreement with certain policies and decisions of the elected government.. So the answer is to simply that problem by appointing your own individuals to represent neighborhoods? And now there is a proposed new zoning system to officially replace our much-touted Horizon Plan to guide positive and balanced growth, which is being regularly ignored–even trounced–by decisions like those just made on the Buis Project with its 452 apartments. Yes, we need to provide for additional residents and the businesses which will follow them, but at the expense of intact, established neighborhoods? Which type of neighborhood representation is more likely to argue for that?.

  20. I have made another blurt-out on the responses to the current letter to the editor. As always, apolitical and as objective as 20 years in City hall could make me. But then, sometimes i read about our town and fell as if I may have gone mad. I may not be trustworthy.

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