Charter Amendments Would Diminish Power of Already-Marginalized Groups

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Pub Theology Guest Host Ashley Smith speaks about her experience as a trans-woman living in San Antonio at The Friendly Spot.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Ashley Smith.

Much of the discussion about the city charter amendment propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot has highlighted the adverse economic impact they would create.

We’ve heard how credit rating agencies may downgrade San Antonio’s municipal bond rating and increase interest rates on our loans, how available funding for parks and sidewalks would decline, and how we won't attract top talent when it’s time to hire our next city manager.

Those are all excellent reasons to vote against Props A, B, and C. If they pass, the resulting turmoil in our city government would create a less attractive business environment and lower the quality of life for nearly every San Antonian who is not a member of the firefighters union.

But this election is not just about bond ratings. I am most concerned about what would happen to the many historically marginalized people in our city – especially San Antonio’s diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. History shows this is a valid concern.

In the fall of 2015, voters in Houston considered a referendum on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibited various forms of discrimination in city employment, city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing. Many voters who cast a ballot that November had heard and seen misleading advertisements such as one warning of “men in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms” and “troubled men who claim to be women.” Despite the best efforts of the NAACP, the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, major employers, and community leaders, voters repealed important protections for numerous Houstonians.

If San Antonio’s Prop A passes, something similar could happen here, too. Although the charter amendment would not apply to our existing Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO), it would apply to new City Council actions. Anti-LGBTQIA groups could use the lower threshold to trigger referenda on nearly anything that would protect or benefit the gay and transgender community. Funding to enforce the NDO and updates to the law or related parts of other ordinances could more easily land on the ballot. If enough members of the Governance Committee oppose aspects of the NDO, we could face a citywide vote on the entire ordinance.

How can I be so sure that will happen? Opponents of LGBTQIA equality have promised to do precisely that, and they are encouraging their followers to vote for Prop A. The San Antonio Family Association claims credit for helping create Prop A and urges members to support it. Gerald Ripley, who fought against the NDO and now leads Pastors PAC, wrote an open letter stating the political action committee would use the lower threshold for generating referenda to roll back LGBTQIA protections. In 2013, Ripley led an effort to repeal our NDO but fell short of the 61,046 signatures needed to put it on the ballot. Notably, he collected around 20,000.

If special interest groups could leverage Prop A against my community, they could undercut civil rights for many other people in San Antonio and harm the most local interests of many neighborhoods. Fewer than 12 percent of registered voters participated in the 2017 municipal election, and those residents were unevenly distributed among our 10 council districts. When certain parts of town are under-represented at the ballot box, those areas will be ignored and will not receive equitable consideration for roads, parks, libraries, and capital improvements. That was how things were before San Antonio moved to single-member districts in 1977.

The lower threshold for referenda would also encourage challenges to nearly any controversial vote City Council takes – consider issues like zoning changes for Planned Parenthood, implementing our Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, removal of the Confederate Statue in Travis Park, modifications to the tree ordinance, or affordable housing initiatives. Instead of Council being accountable for those politically difficult decisions, the most zealous San Antonio voters who turn up at the polls will decide each matter. If you feel that three propositions are confusing and the current political dialogue is acrimonious, wait until there are two dozen propositions on the ballot every time you vote.

Some folks are understandably frustrated with city government at times and may hope to put their favorite causes on the ballot more easily if Prop A passes. However, that’s not how this works. The proposed charter amendment still requires initiatives such as our paid sick leave ordinance to obtain 70,000 signatures within 40 days. The proposition is a tool designed to let some groups disrupt our city government, but it will not empower grassroots organizations to create positive change.

Worst of all, the three propositions are designed to work together to weaken Council and incapacitate city government.

Let’s imagine they all pass. In a few years, we find ourselves with an inexperienced, small-town city manager responsible for running an organization of more than 12,000 employees and a $2.8 billion annual budget. We fight over where to make necessary cuts to city services, thanks to budget shortfalls created by a lower bond rating and the windfall compensation package that an arbitration board awarded the firefighters union. Moreover, Council has become a dreadful place, where cultural warfare is frequently on display, out-of-town developers and businesses routinely threaten Council members with petitions to get their way, and essential infrastructure projects never get off the ground. Eventually, voters will search for someone to rescue the city from the disarray.

San Antonio is growing faster than any other city in the country. We should become an example of how people can come together in a culture of inclusion to create prosperity and improve the quality of life for everyone who calls this city home.

Passing these propositions would take us in the opposite direction. Please don’t let that happen.

3 thoughts on “Charter Amendments Would Diminish Power of Already-Marginalized Groups

  1. I would like to get government out of the picture altogether. Too bad this city is divided into two tribes: the liberals and the conservatives.

  2. Removing the government from the picture altogether makes exactly 0 sense. At least the debate above concerns citizens voting for the way their city is going to run. Your idea would have 0 streets, 0 basic protections, 0 zoning regulations, 0 climate-protecting actions, 0 libraries, 0 parks, and I could go on and on. This is exactly why nobody likes having hypothetical conversations with libertarians who think the world would be better if every human just led an unchecked and unfettered life.

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