San Antonio’s City Council District 5 candidates take on crumbling streets and sidewalks
For four years, San Antonio City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales has presided over District 5, an exclusively urban area that is densely populated and has long been challenged by high poverty rates, aging infrastructure and crime.
Gonzales said she’s acutely aware of those needs and hopes voters will elect her to a third term in the May 6 municipal election so she can continue tackling those issues. She has steadily urged the city to invest more in urban streets and sidewalks. She continues to push for more public safety resources.
While Gonzales reports making some significant strides in her first two terms, some of her challengers say District 5 hasn’t shown enough progress.
Gonzales, 44, the owner of longtime West Side business Bill’s Pawn & Jewelry, faces five opponents in next month’s election. They are Cynthia T. Cavazos, 45, a hotel housekeeper and a social services coordinator for A Mission of God’s Love; immigration attorney David C. Yañez, 50; Richard Montez, 30, a recruiter at FlexTech; Daniel Lopez Jr., 20, the owner of a newly established construction company, and Dolores Sotomayor, 58, who was until recently the interim president of Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association.
Yañez, Montez, Lopez and Sotomayor are first-time candidates. Cavazos has run for various public offices without success, including Texas governor in 2014 and San Antonio mayor in 2015.
All of District 5’s turf sits inside of Loop 410, making it the city’s most compact territory. Its boundaries extend northward to Culebra Road, southward toward West Southcross Boulevard and Quintana Road, westward to 39th Street and eastward to Interstate 35.
Gonzales knows her constituents’ demographics well and lists them quickly — 93 percent of the district is low income, while 97 percent of its residents are Latinos, mostly Mexican-American.
She said a larger share or “perhaps a majority” of the city’s infrastructure funds should go toward making improvements in urban areas like District 5 instead of dividing that money equally among all 10 council districts.
“Our streets, because they’re some of the oldest in the city, don’t get the attention that they deserve,” Gonzales said recently. “We still have many parts of our district that don’t have sidewalks, that haven’t seen street improvements in 50 years. We seem to just not be able to get enough money to fund that.”
Because of these concerns, Gonzales has opposed some of the city’s annexation efforts.
“We keep annexing and going further and further out, and so there’s less attention paid to the urban areas,” she said.
The city’s proposed $850 million bond issue going before voters in the May 6 election includes funding for what Gonzales describes as some significant projects for District 5 — a bridge over West Commerce Street, an overpass at Frio City Road and South Zarzamora Street to help drivers avoid railroad traffic.
Gonzales, who was first elected to City Council in 2013, launched the Vision Zero program to reduce traffic fatalities after eight pedestrians were killed or seriously injured by vehicles in District 5 during her first eight months in office. That program was later adopted citywide.
She also secured an additional $3 million to put more street lights in dark neighborhoods. Her district was the first to get an Animal Care Services officer assigned solely to its jurisdiction to respond to reports of stray dogs.
While most of the other candidates did not criticize Gonzales specifically, several of them said District 5 needs to take bigger steps forward.
“I think the conversation in our community has been stagnate for a long time,” said Montez, a lifelong resident of the district. “We’ve talked a lot about streets and sidewalks and lighting for many, many years ... We need a broader, more comprehensive approach to solving some of the more pressing issues we face there — particularly poverty, hunger, homelessness.
“I think it’s going to take the willpower of a council person to create collaborations between nonprofit organizations, between community advocates, between other council people, between the mayor, between the city manager, to find the political will to finally start to address some of the issues facing the district.”
Montez believes the city hasn’t worked closely enough with school districts to address young people’s needs. If elected, he plans to create a youth advisory board so the district’s young residents have a voice.
He is also dissatisfied with the deteriorated conditions of some parks in District 5, which he said are not adequately funded. When he kicked off his campaign at Vidaurri Park on the West Side, he recalled, there was only one portable toilet and no working water fountains.
Montez serves as board chairman for the Inner City Development nonprofit on the West Side.
Yañez said District 5 continues to fall further behind while the rest of the city thrives. Both Yañez and Montez said the city needs to do a better job informing residents of its plans and step up efforts to get the public’s input.
“It seems some areas never got their curbs after 50 years,” Yañez said. “So I think we owe them something. They’ve paid their taxes ... It shouldn’t be that way after this long.
“You must have a cooperative nature with all the council people and (City Manager) Sheryl Sculley and say, ‘Hey, let’s make some plans, even if it’s a five- or 10-year plan.’ Put it on the list, let people know, ‘Hey, you’re going to get your sidewalks in 10 years.’ If it doesn’t come through, then they have a way to complain.”
Yañez also lamented the low number of banks on the commercial thoroughfares of West Commerce and Zarzamora streets. There is a BBVA Compass branch on South Zarzamora, but he said more banks are needed to stimulate interest and investment.
He called for pushing the corporate community to make bigger investments in the neighborhood.
Yañez has operated his own law practice for five years. He previously worked at Catholic Charities. Before that, he worked for former state senator Leticia Van de Putte.
Cavazos called Gonzales “a good councilwoman,” but argues the city spends too much money in other areas of town.
“I think they need to start spending a little bit more money on District 5,” Cavazos said. “Not just District 5, but (Councilman Alan) Warrick’s district, as well as (Councilwoman Rebecca) Viagran’s district. Those are the districts that have a lot more people at levels of poverty.”
If adequate funding isn’t allocated from the city budget to address District 5’s infrastructure needs, Cavazos suggested the community could hold “fundraisers.”
Public records show Cavazos was convicted in Comal County in 2003 for driving while her license was invalid. An unrelated charge of misdemeanor assault filed against her in Bexar County in 1999 was quickly dismissed because of “insufficient evidence,” public records show. Cavazos said the latter charge was filed when she tried to protect herself from someone who was intoxicated.
She also tried to become a write-in candidate for U.S. President last year, but didn’t get enough signatures or pay the fees to become certified as a properly filed write-in candidate.
Lopez, the youngest candidate, wants to improve the West Side’s image. His main goals are to expand the district’s economic system by bringing back local businesses; boosting education, such as creating pilot programs to help curb school dropout rates and teen pregnancies; and stabilizing the district’s roads and drainage systems.
He also wants to ensure that VIA Metropolitan Transit’s bus stops remain free of cigarette smoke, although a city ordinance already prohibits smoking within 20 feet of bus stops.
Lopez argued that Gonzales focused too much on infrastructure and streets while other needs in District 5 went unaddressed.
“She’s a good woman, a smart businesswoman,” Lopez said. “But I feel as if she hasn’t really done much.”
Both Lopez and Gonzales agree that the city needs to provide more support to VIA. Gonzales sided with District 4 City Councilman Rey Saldaña last year in a failed bid to provide more supplemental funding to VIA that would have ultimately reached up to $10 million annually.
The city can do better when it comes to public transportation, Lopez said. “Sometimes when I’m driving down Commerce or Old Highway 90 ... I would see a lot of people at bus stops waiting,” he said.
Lopez is the owner of Dan’s Construction, a business he started late last year with his father. He is also pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
Sotomayor said she is running because she is concerned about the poor conditions of some sidewalks, the lack of street lights and the prevalent crime in District 5.
She also wants to see a larger police presence throughout the district and the city.
“If the city manager didn’t get paid as much as she got paid, that money could go to someone who in reality does put their life on the line,” Sotomayor said, referring to Sheryl Sculley’s compensation, which amounts to $450,000 in base pay and could reach up to $100,000 in potential bonuses this year.
The first-time candidate also criticized Gonzales, the incumbent councilwoman. “If she was doing a good job, I don’t think five people would be running against her,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor said she was arrested on two separate occasions years ago when she was going by the name Dolores Fragozo — once in the 1980s on what she described as a warrant for bad checks issued in Atascosa County and another time in Bexar County in 1991 for welfare fraud. She said she was not convicted in either case, but was placed on deferred adjudication and completed probation successfully. She denied being at fault in either case.
Sotomayor said she does volunteer work, but is not currently employed. “My family helps me,” she said.
While Sotomayor was critical of the city manager, the other candidates expressed differing views of Sculley.
Gonzales said she is satisfied with Sculley’s job performance, but didn’t support Sculley’s most recent pay raise and wouldn’t support any future raises.
“Sheryl’s a very hard-working woman. She’s really good at her job. And she is paid handsomely to do that,” the councilwoman said.
Montez said he values Sculley’s expertise and thinks she has done a good job. But he also said City Council has been “very weak” and has lacked the backbone to stand up to Sculley.
Yañez believes Sculley is trying to apply “a Phoenix model” style of governing that he said may not work here, referring to the Arizona city where Sculley previously worked as an assistant city manager. “She has not really connected to what San Antonio is,” he said.
Lopez said Sculley is “overpaid” and argued the city manager hasn’t been supportive of public safety, citing her stance during collective bargaining negotiations with the city’s police and fire personnel.
Cavazos said she probably wouldn’t remove Sculley from the city manager’s job if elected.