After a dramatic discussion Thursday, San Antonio City Council approved a new code of conduct for its own members aimed at governing how they interact with one another both in-person and over social media.
The four-page document, approved with an 8-2 vote, includes many clear-cut provisions like avoiding profane language and making many of the behavioral and workplace standards that already exist for city staff also apply to members of the council.
Other elements are more vague, such as avoiding “discussion of personalities” and language that “explicitly or implicitly threatens physical harm toward another person” – wording that Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) suggested could be interpreted any number of ways to silence unpopular opinions.
Castillo and Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) cast the “no” votes, and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) was absent from Thursday’s meeting.
Plans for creating the code of conduct were spearheaded by Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who said she first saw the need for a council code of conduct in 2017, when she was serving on the city’s Ethics Review Board and was appalled by the way council members were treating one another.
Roughly five years later, however, a council with members ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 70s were deeply divided over the goals and specifics of reining in one another’s behavior.
Rocha Garcia, a potential 2025 mayoral contender, acknowledged Thursday that some San Antonians may have grown wary of council’s self-governing tactics after censuring three of its members in the past 14 months.
She added that the code of conduct would put some guardrails on how and when the censure is used, and allow the council to “regain trust” of those who’d lost faith in their judgment.
Most members agreed that the code of conduct as written would have been most relevant to the way the council handled censuring former Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) in 2022 for berating a colleague and former romantic partner.
That unusual move drew criticism from some, who chalked the censure decision up to political retribution from Bravo’s detractors, and praise from others who saw it as enforcing modern workplace standards for members of the council.
Generational disconnect was on full display when council turned its attention to the code’s inclusion of social media guidelines.
McKee-Rodriguez said he liked the idea of ensuring council members are respectful to one another on the dais, but he vowed that the new code would not change his own vibrant social media presence.
“I’m going to continue everything I’ve been doing, and you can stay peeping my Twitter for spicy tweets,” said McKee-Rodriguez, who last month tweeted that Pelaez’s wavering on a previously shared policy priority was “one of the weakest moves I’ve ever seen.”
“I triple-dog dare anybody to use this as a political tool against me,” McKee-Rodriguez added.
After the exchange, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was perplexed about why the code of conduct was generating so much pushback.
“There should be nothing controversial here,” Nirenberg said. “Always, we will have community standards. The interpretation of what is professional is going to change from one generation to the next.”
Even members who supported the code of conduct Thursday appeared confused about how such a tool would be applied.
Councilman John Courage (D9), for example, said constituents often want the council to take action when one of its members misbehaves. But when he asked City Attorney Andy Segovia whether the new code would cover incidents like DWIs, like the December incident the council recently censured Councilman Marc Whyte (D10) for, Segovia said it would not — though the council could still censure colleagues for actions that aren’t laid out in the code.
Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3), on the other hand, said she hoped the code of conduct would improve smaller day-to-day interactions between members.
“If it helps to prevent side conversations when you’re talking, I would love that,” said Viagran, though the code includes no such prohibitions.
In an exchange that drew chuckles from attendees, Castillo acknowledged that her perspective on the issue put her in the unusual company of conservative activist and City Hall gadfly Jack Finger, who also said the code of conduct seemed like an infringement of free speech Thursday.
“When we look at cities and local governments, whether it’s at the federal level or state representatives and even school boards, we’ve seen how censure has been used to challenge those who challenge the status quo,” said Castillo, who pointed to U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) as examples.
Gonzales was censured by the Republican Party of Texas for splitting with his party on border issues and gun safety, while Omar was removed from Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee over comments she made about Israel.
“There are a number of moving pieces that should have us all raising questions about the democratic process,” Castillo said of the code of conduct, as well as Nirenberg’s request for the Charter Review Commission to revisit council members’ ability call for special meetings.
Bravo, who made a return appearance at City Hall Thursday, told former colleagues he worried the new code didn’t do enough to ensure a fair process for determining whether someone actually violated its rules.
“I don’t see it spelling out any rights of the accused,” said Bravo, who at the time hired a lawyer to fight the city’s handling of his 2022 censure.
After the meeting, Segovia told reporters that the code of conduct does not implement any new legal procedures or change the way Bravo’s case would have been handled.
“If there’s a complaint, we would have an independent investigation, depending on the nature and scope of the complaint,” Segovia said. “They would provide the results of that to the council, probably in an executive session.”