Cibrian: Active consensus builder, or political strong-arm?
In her two years on the San Antonio City Council, District 8 rep Diane Cibrian has established a reputation for wanting to be involved in every aspect of the municipal government process.
Her advocates would say that it reflects the mayoral candidate’s zeal to bring about positive change in the community. Her detractors tend to grumble that she has boundary issues.
A central area of contention has been Cibrian’s approach to zoning cases. While some applicants and neighborhood groups commend her for taking an active role in resolving zoning issues, others argue that she’s been overly intrusive on the front-end of the process, before the Zoning Commission even gets a chance to hear a case.
“I can tell you that the general consensus of several people on the Zoning Commission was that she probably crossed that line, in terms of wanting to get personally involved in zoning cases,” says Jody Sherrill, chairman of the San Antonio Zoning Commission, who is stepping down to make a run for the District 8 Council seat Cibrian is vacating. “And then, once she’d done that, she’d never really get involved, and we’d have to continue cases.”
As Cibrian points out, it’s standard operating procedure for neighborhood groups and developers to contact their council member at the beginning of the zoning process, and her willingness to meet with both sides and listen to their concerns is universally seen as a positive — even essential — trait.
Some participants in the zoning process balk, however, when they sense that Cibrian is trying to pre-arrange a deal before the Zoning Commission gets to hear the facts. They say that if Cibrian doesn’t get the concessions she seeks from a developer, she’ll stall the process by insisting that the applicant request repeated continuances.
“I feel very strongly that the Zoning Commission is an independent body that makes land-use decisions and the Council is a political and policy-setting body, and the Commission makes a recommendation to them,” says a City official, who spoke to the Current on the condition of anonymity. “When a Council weighs in on the front end, it doesn’t allow the zoning process to go through. The Zoning Commission is there for a balance of powers. If you play on both sides, then where’s the balance?”
“I’m a neighborhood advocate,” Cibrian counters. “Sometimes the applicants may not like to have multiple meetings regarding zoning cases. But that’s the way I can best serve the neighborhoods. And sometimes the applicants who are lobbyists don’t like it.”
Sherrill says one particularly frustrating
experience occurred over a proposed development on De Zavala Road near Lockhill-Selma. “This particular case, we’d continued it five times,” he says. “The last time around, even though we were asked for an additional continuation, we just passed it through because we were tired of seeing it.
“There was a perception from the other commissioners that [Cibrian] was trying to get involved more than she should in the case. Because apparently the neighborhood and the applicant had worked out everything necessary to make it go forward.”
Cibrian argues: “There is not a consensus with that case. There are three different neighborhoods involved. It’s a very large tract of land and a very unusual situation.”
Cibrian’s relationship to the Zoning Commission first attracted public attention last August, when the Express-News reported that in 2007 Cibrian had spent a “long weekend” at a Cancún condominium owned by the family of local banker-developer Hugo Gutierrez Jr. Ramiro Valadez III, Cibrian’s choice for District 8 Zoning Commissioner, shares business interests with Gutierrez.
By all accounts, the Commission led by Sherrill has been an unusually independent one, and its members don’t always follow the established tradition of deferring to the judgment of the commissioner whose district is involved in a case. That independence has caused some friction with Cibrian. According to one source, a zoning commissioner was “called on the carpet” by Cibrian about “sticking your nose into my district.” Cibrian disputes this account, saying that no such conversation took place.
Sherrill says Cibrian lost her temper with him after he did not enable her to address the Commission over the Denman Estate zoning case. “It was taken over by the City and required zoning, and she wanted to speak in favor of that action,” Sherrill says. “Normally, City Council people don’t appear before us. We fast-tracked the case, but she didn’t know the process and didn’t realize that when we asked for people to speak on any of these cases that we bypassed her, and she got ticked off.”
Sherrill adds that Cibrian demanded a full apology from him, “even though we passed the case.”
Ted Lee, a local attorney whose application for a controversial zoning change at Dreamland Drive and Lockhill-Selma comes before the Council on February, contends that Cibrian holds up zoning cases until she senses whether or not a developer will support her political ambitions. “It’s never that blunt,” Lee says. “It’s always, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do on this.’”
Lee, who supported Cibrian’s primary opponent, Morris Stribling, in the 2007 District 8 Council race, says a neighborhood meeting on the Dreamland property was “like a lynch mob and she was leading the lynch mob.” He says Cibrian tried to pressure him at the meeting to drop his zoning request.
Cibrian also ruffled feathers in the case of a proposed commercial development on two acres of residential property at Green Glen and Oak Grove.
“Two neighbors and myself were all walking with her in our neighborhood in regards to a zoning change that we were all against,” Cynthia Nemcik says. “I was very vocal and Diane just really didn’t like me. She told all of us that the zoning change was going to happen, and we might as well get used to it.”
At one point, Nemcik annoyed Cibrian simply by tape-recording a neighborhood meeting. Elizabeth Earnley, field assistant for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), recalls that the day after the meeting, a Cibrian staffer “expressed concerns” because Nemcik had taped the gathering. “To be honest, I thought [Cibrian’s office] was overreacting a bit. It seemed like a misunderstanding that was treated as some kind of conspiracy. It didn’t seem like anything was said that would have been detrimental to the Councilwoman, so I didn’t see getting worked up about it.”
Ultimately, Cibrian’s greatest strength as a politician — her relentless drive to put her stamp on every action the City takes — has also proven to be the source of her problematic relationship with the Zoning Commission.
“She wants to get things tied up in a pretty bow before the case gets heard,” a City official says. “It has the potential for holding people hostage, by not allowing a case just to proceed and get a hearing. Instead, it’s, ‘You’re not going to get my support if you don’t do these things.’ If you want to do that, you can do it at the Council level. Sometimes it’s not tied up in a pretty bow, and maybe that’s the point of why the Zoning Commission is there.” •