The first annual Virtual Town Hall with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (twitter.com/castrovth) was held on Tuesday, November 17, at Trinity University and aired live online (mayorcastro.com). The meeting was attended by various press and moderated by the Current's own Editor in Chief, Elaine Wolff, who asked questions and relayed those of community members sent via the Internet.
Castro, who is active on Facebook and Twitter, has been called one of our most plugged-in local government representatives. On Tuesday, he reiterated a campaign promise to "increase the level of participation in our community, civically" to "help those of us that are policy makers to make good decisions." He spoke of his goals to reach young audiences and devise new ways to invigorate and integrate public conversation and community development via social media, saying that new technologies can be used "to realize it takes a village to raise children well, keep each other safe, and have a great quality of life." Castro admitted there is an issue in that San Antonio's digital divide is "significant," but that various libraries and centers are working to better facilities designed to teach Internet literacy.
CPS was also brought up early in the meeting as expected. He mentioned that management just returned from Japan where they were learning about alternative plans for San Antonio. Previous energy estimates were rejected but the Mayor assured that in preparation for the submission of a revised plan on December 31 "CPS has seriously looked at alternatives...in case that cost is too high."
Wolff inquired as to whether the public's trust in CPS could be rebuilt and Castro looked resigned as he admitted that it will take a lot of work, including an on-going investigation of the company, but that the staff will be held fully accountable.
"[We are going to] make sure those responsible face the consequences for their decisions...and identify changes that need to be made," said Castro. He also acknowledged "the necessity of much stronger oversight at the board level" when its effectiveness was called into question, but did not cite any actions or decisions being made despite being admittedly "uncomfortable with the previous amount of oversight of staff members at CPS."
The 2010 budget (accepted by Castro and the City Council on September 17) included significant budget cuts that lowered the projected 67 million deficit to 19 million for 2010. The city will receive 16% of CPS's revenue, which seems to undermine the impartiality of city officials to inflated CPS estimates, but unfortunately, there was no further inquiry into this issue. Castro pointed out that the city will also be aided by a federal stimulus package for social services that allows certain "gaps" to be filled.
Money has also been set aside for two significant projects related to education: 1) a Very Early Childhood Center that would take young parents and their children and "use the best practices...so that they cognitively develop on time," and 2) a city-wide College Access and Opportunity Center: a centralized location for high-school students with many services designed to help them make informed education decisions. Castro pointed to the many students who "fall through the cracks" because the face time they get with counselors is typically low. Wolff summarized this initiative, saying that it will be "linking opportunity and desire."
The discussion turned to the Film Production and Senate Package (addressed by the last legislative session) which gives money to cities, including San Antonio, for producing films and an extra 2.5% rebate to film production crews for their work. Castro spoke about attempts to market the city to filmmakers in California as a place for arts productions. He traveled to L.A. to pitch Texas and San Antonio by relaying incentives to film here, which include a viable talent base, an overall economic benefit, the city's ability to work with development services to streamline locations and setup, as well as a good quality of life for young professionals in production industries.
Another focus included San Antonio's streetcar initiative, which would invest in mass transit beyond buses. The light-rail initiative, which will be resubmitted to public vote after being rejected in 2000, proposes a 3-4 mile stretch along downtown (possibly along Broadway or as an East-West connection). Castro predicts that when voters get another crack at it, they will accept because "people have become more environmentally conscious and getting around by rail is definitely that."
The Mayor also pointed out that having a rail system would be more affordable for residents in the long run, but he acknowledged that voter approval is needed to realize his "dream...that we would have a city and a region connected by rail." There was also talk of long-term planning for a commuter rail from San Antonio to Austin in the future. Castro reiterated the necessity of making mass transit convenient and affordable.
Plans for development of the commercial, residential, infrastructure, and historical focus in San Antonio's East, West, and South Sides were discussed, as well as potential means of increasing the population density and quality of life downtown. Throughout the meeting, Castro was direct and maintained a fresh, positive outlook without getting his feathers ruffled. Hopefully the success of this first Virtual Town Hall session will inspire the city government to continue to utilize the Internet as a means of effective communication with the public.
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