By Jacob Beltran
It’s been three months since the three-candidate battle for District 3, located in the heart of San Antonio’s South Side, was decided and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran won the vote by 51 percent.
The heated race included incumbent Leticia Ozuna, candidate Gabriel Velasquez and Viagran blasting each other’s abilities to serve the district according to what they believed constituents wanted, or needed, the most.
Where Ozuna focused on grants and programs such as expanding the city’s municipal broadband network, Velasquez and Viagran both felt she was misrepresenting the actual views of District 3.
Students on this campus and District 3 residents had the opportunity to hear all three candidates shortly before the May election when the candidates took part in the Mesquite Forum, a Q&A-session hosted by this news site.
Inaugurated into the position in June, this news outlet recently visited with Viagran to catch up with the public official to ask what she has done since winning the votes of District 3 constituents.
Self-tasked with restoring accountability to the office, Viagran led our one-on-one interview with her efforts to reach out to the district and grasp their concerns.
Staying on the line
Viagran said she hopes to bolster a relationship with District 3 residents, something she said is made much more difficult now that she’s in office. With a small support staff she relies on office calls, email, social media and in-person Q-&-A sessions to stay in touch with community issues.
“A councilman once told me: ‘you will never be as close to the constituents as you are when you’re campaigning’,” Viagran recalled, adding that since she’s taken office, she’s had more communication with people outside of District 3 than she expected.
Cardona said the office averages around 15 calls a day. “I have previous council experience and I’ve never seen the calls this high,” Cardona said.
With four council aides working, Cardona said addressing callers is a lengthy process because of their complaints and concerns. “Sometimes the phone rings and we’re not able to answer the phone,” she said. “It’s been enough to keep two full time and two part-time employees busy.”
So what does District 3 care about? During our interview, Viagran reviewed the topics constituents have called her about the most.
Stepping into her position, Viagran said listening to constituents became more important after the May flooding, which damaged several of the district’s roads.
Viagran said members of her staff went on rides with public works crews to locate streets most damaged by flooding, guided by 311 calls from District 3 residents.
The overall city proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 includes $54 million to spend on infrastructure, including $35 million to improve streets and $8.5 million to improve sidewalks.
The city council will vote to accept or deny the proposed budget Sept. 12.
Another concern amongst district constituents is that dogs in the Animal Care Services shelter at 2634 Stealth Road are not getting enough exposure compared to other shelters, Viagran said, adding that the shelter is over capacity.
Evidence of the growing concern could be seen during the Citizens-to-be-Heard protest at City Hall Aug. 29, as protesters Jessica Gross and Shantel Swierc held signs referencing the adoption, rescue, foster campaign: “Brooks Babies – ARF!” aimed at the lack of exposure dogs in the ACS shelter at Brooks are being given.
Asked if they thought Viagran was doing a good job of addressing their concerns, the two said not enough is being done. “Half of the dogs are not posted online, they don’t say which location the dogs are at, and the numbers for identification are wrong,” Swierc said.
During a phone interview with Linda Scullary, a volunteer with the movement, said the organization wants ACS to either open the facility to public or not to keep dogs there. “They could turn it into a quarantine facility, and they have been saying we’re thinking about that,” Scullary recalled, “but I have yet to find anything in writing that says they’re looking at doing that.”
Back at the “Citizens to be Heard,” the two protesters were just a small part of the crowd that showed up to voice their opinions for and against the non-discrimination ordinance to be voted on today. Viagran did not take a stance on it, but did show concern for the way it was written.
“I want to make sure the non-discrimination ordinance is written in a way that benefits everyone,” she said, adding that the District 3 stance on the ordinance is split down the middle.
Playing it safe, Viagran did not take a side on Councilwoman Elisa Chan’s homophobic views secretly recorded by a former aide during a staff meeting and originally reported in the San Antonio Express-News Aug. 15.
While it’s important to listen to the citizens, one can’t help but ask if the change in leadership has left Texas A&M University-San Antonio with less support.
Ozuna’s efforts as a councilwoman were focused on qualifying San Antonio for the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program, which would upgrade the city’s municipal broadband to improve and allow Internet access in parks and between government entities. This process included A&M-San Antonio which was added to the network in Fall 2012 to connect with the city.
Viagran said she has no plans for BTOP, which leaves the ball still in Ozuna’s court.
Of course, Viagran isn’t without concern for A&M-San Antonio. During our meeting she heavily encouraged students interested in a career in engineering to stick with it.
“I work with engineers every day,” she said, listing off different types of engineers including civil, electrical, structural and chemical.
She also hopes the university’s teaching program will play some role in the Pre-K 4 SA South Side center that opened up this month at 2535 S.E. Military Dr.
Anette Gonzalez, director of the teacher preparation and certification center, met with Pre-K 4 SA directors to plan a partnership between A&M-San Antonio students and the South Side Center.
In other opportunities, Cardona said their office is “looking for interns if anyone is interested in local government,” and that the office is looking for students in any field of study such as geology, geography, history and even communications.
“It’s not always inclusive to one group, all backgrounds would be helpful in this office,” Cardona said.
The Mesquite will follow up with Viagran twice this semester to follow up on these issues and District 3’s relationship to university growth and development. Students and constituents are encouraged to comment on this post below.