Peter Sakai, the first new Bexar County judge in 22 years, said Feb. 14 he hopes his approach to governance has already yielded a positive effect on the community.
The county’s first top elected Asian-American leader, Sakai was sworn into office Jan. 1, succeeding longtime County Judge Nelson Wolff.
A victory in the county judge’s election Nov. 8 is the latest accomplish for Sakai, who had a 26-year career as a local civil court judge, handling family law cases, including child abuse and neglect.
In an interview with Community Impact, Sakai said in the first six weeks of serving as county judge, he has enjoyed informal discussions with a variety of constituents, including a group of residential developers and the new ownership group behind the San Antonio Missions.
Sakai also said he has personally witnessed a day’s worth of roll calls at the Bexar County Jail and taken time to speak with rank-and-file deputies as well as leadership of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, the local deputy sheriff’s union.
A common denominator in such talks has been a willingness to listen to all sides and stances, Sakai said. But the new county judge also said he is blunt in sharing his expectations with constituents.
Sakai said he enjoyed having a group of developers recently give him a crash course in housing tax credits and incentives, reinvestment zones, and public finance corporations.
“What I told them is, I’m here to listen to you, and I’m here asking questions, wanting to know more. But afterwards, I asked them what will be the return on our investment for any monies that we approve, or tax incentives or benefits that you want that might cost taxpayers,” Sakai said.
Minor league baseball
Sakai said a decision’s larger effect on the community is vital to the choices he and the county commissioners court may face, especially how that project may affect youths and young families.
In the case of the residential developers, whom he did not name in the interview, Sakai said it is critical that a developer proposes a clear return on investment when planning a project.
“If I can see that, get an example of that, that would help. I also asked the developers, 'How is your development good for children and families? Is your development going to have wellness or wraparound services for families, especially those needing affordable housing, so that they have supporting services?’” Sakai recalled.
Sakai did not offer details of his recent chat with the new Missions ball club ownership. It was announced in November that a group of local business executives formed an ownership organization, Designated Bidders LLC, that acquired the Minor League Baseball franchise.
According to a news release, Designated Bidders was founded by Bruce Hill, Randy Smith and Graham Weston of local development firm Weston Urban; local entrepreneur Bob Cohen of Bob Cohen Strategies; and Peter J. Holt, San Antonio Spurs managing partner.
Ryan Sanders Baseball—owned by the families of Nolan Ryan, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member and native Texan, CEO Reid Ryan, and Don Sanders—joined Designated Bidders as the Missions’ new owners and operators. Nolan and Reid Ryan were notable front office leaders for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, respectively, during those teams’ most successful years.
The Missions ownership group also includes Spurs legends David Robinson and Manu Ginobili, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, and noted local restaurant ownership company La Familia Cortez.
Sakai acknowledged excitement surrounding the star power represented within the Missions ownership and community members speculating whether the new owners will overhaul the team’s current home, Wolff Stadium, or find a new stadium location elsewhere in Bexar County.
Regardless, Sakai said the Missions owners to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the community to help show Missions baseball is in San Antonio to stay.
“I asked the owners of the Missions, 'What are they going to do for the kids?' I hope they support the [Catholic Youth Organization], local Little Leagues, and high school baseball and softball. Make your stadium available for nonprofits. I want to see what you’re doing for our community,” Sakai said.
County law enforcement
Sakai also expressed pride in overseeing actions early in his term, such as a Jan. 20 announcement of the county buying 1,992 doses, or a 20-month supply, of Narcan for deputies to consider using upon encountering individuals who overdosed on an opioid.
County officials said the $47,000 used on the Narcan purchase resulted from a $2.2 million allocation Bexar County received as part of $10 billion in opioid settlements, which involved major pharmacy chains CVS Health and Walgreens in 2022.
“Now, Narcan will be readily available for our deputies in the field, helping to increase the safety of our first responders who can administer it before paramedics arrive. It becomes the first step toward opening the door to treatment,” Sakai said in a Jan. 20 news conference.
Talking to Community Impact, Sakai counted the opioid epidemic and equipping emergency first responders as best as possible as just a couple of issues that affect the wider community.
Sakai said, in addressing the county’s law enforcement efforts, he aims to have an open mind on topics, such as how best to bolster county jail staff numbers and pushing more criminal cases through a local court system that was affected by pandemic-induced slowdowns since spring 2020.
District Court Judge Ron Rangel on Feb. 15 announced in-person jury pools will resume beginning March 6. As for county jail staffing numbers, an American Correctional Consultants study presented to county commissioners in November 2022 said the county’s adult detention center has a workforce of about 1,600 people and is short about 230 deputies.
Sakai said he understands the deputy’s union and the sheriff may at times have differences of opinion or approach, but when the time comes for a major decision or initiative, he hopes all county law enforcement personnel support each other.
“I told [sheriff, rank-and-file, and union officials] that you need to be aligned on the same page,” Sakai said.
Prepared for county's top job
Sakai said when some constituents ask how his 26 years on the local civil judiciary prepared him to serve as county judge, he said he often replies that his skill set includes an ability to carefully to listen to all sides of an issue or debate. He also said being able to firmly render a decision is critical to being a public official.
“I told them what you see is what you get. I was a judge who developed a reputation for listening and listening intently. There’s a difference. It means you’re listening to both sides of an argument, and then you figure out who’s telling the truth or which side should prevail. You also have to have the ability to apply the rule of law, which is very big with me,” he said.
Sakai said he will keep to his campaign pledge and concentrate on issues, such as economic development, education and workforce development, domestic violence, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care, homelessness, affordable housing, and how each of those things may affect the community.
“I’m not saying that all I know are children’s and family issues. What I do know is that I will look at all issues that do affect children and families. I will look at the decisions I have to make as a county judge through an equity lens—what’s going for our children and families?” he said.