Two political campaigns are painting two very different pictures of Chris Steele, the San Antonio Professional Firefighter Association president who successfully led the charge to get three City Charter amendment proposals on the November ballot. One is of a humble man fighting for San Antonians to have a stronger voice in their government; the other is of a power-hungry union head willing to burn down City Hall to get firefighters a better deal.
Despite heavy media coverage of recent press conferences and other events surrounding the firefighters union, little is known about Steele himself, his history as a firefighter, and his political motivations. San Antonio voters haven’t heard him debate the three proposed amendments in public; he pulled out of a scheduled discussion panel with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and often refuses to answer questions at press conferences.
“[Steele is] not one to be out in the forefront,” said City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who describes Steele as a “good friend,” adding that Steele does not crave the “spotlight” of headlines.
Steele did not respond to several requests for an interview for this article.
Hired by the San Antonio Fire Department in October 1985, Steele worked at various fire stations and was promoted from firefighter to engineer in 1990, to lieutenant in 1993, captain in 1995, and district chief in 1999, according to City records obtained by the Rivard Report. He was elected union president in January 2004.
Steele’s union president salary from the City in fiscal year 2017 was $181,856.
His personnel file, much of which is redacted, shows he received good reviews in the early ’90s after receiving “standard” marks early in his career. Included in his personnel file is a letter from a resident thanking Steele and three other firefighters for saving a kitten from a car and letters from various stakeholders thanking him for supporting a program aimed at reducing drunk driving.
However, legal proceedings between Steele and City and other court documents suggest he has a history of deception, but was never convicted of associated misdemeanors or felonies.
In December 1994, Steele was indicted by a grand jury for creating a fake Texas identification card, court and police documents show, but the Bexar County district attorney dropped the felony charge of tampering with a government record because of a lack of evidence.
A man named Derek Mark Owens, who was eventually convicted, told police officers in September 1994 that it was Steele’s idea to use fake baptismal records in order to obtain an ID from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Owens used two different IDs to open checking accounts under fake names and wrote bad checks, according to his voluntary statement given to DPS officers obtained through an open records request. “I have known Chris Steele for about 12 years,” Owens stated. “He works for the San Antonio fire department [sic].”
Steele denied any knowledge of the crime and called Owens his “ex-friend,” noting in a letter in his file that he believes Owens named him as an accomplice because Owens thought a firefighter would get more lenient treatment that would extend to him.
Steele said Owens’ girlfriend convinced Owens to tell the police that “‘his friend Chris’ did it with him,” Steele wrote in a letter responding to the document in his personnel file, because she thought “they don’t arrest firemen and that they would probably let [Owens] off easy.”
Steele said he spent very little time with Owens. A handwritten note at the bottom of the typed letter reads: “I do not have and never have in the past possessed an identification card other than my own, Christopher A. Steele. I do not have in my possession a fake identification card from the Department of Public Safety.”
But a state-issued ID for “Keith James Washington,” who looks like Steele wearing glasses, was discovered during the investigation.
Also in the file was a statement by Steele’s supervisor, William Sano, then captain of the Arson Bureau, who said there was sufficient evidence to charge Steele with a Class C misdemeanor. However, no charges were filed.
“Having known Steele since his entry into the fire department, I recognize him in the picture on both the valid and false identification cards,” Sano stated. “I’ve enclosed a copy from a copy machine, but it is not of the quality I examined. D.P.S. personnel also verify that it is Steele in the photo wearing glasses. It is also interesting to note that the glasses used by Owens to obtain false IDs appear to be the same as the ones used by Steele.”
In 2012, Steele divorced his wife but kept her on his health care plan, which does not charge premiums for union members or their dependents. The City maintains it did not receive notice of the divorce; meanwhile, Steele and the City were embroiled in a battle over the municipality’s right to verify dependents. See the divorce document here, which states as a term of the agreement that Steele cover health insurance costs for his spouse for 120 months. He got to keep most of the couple’s assets and retirement accounts.
More recently, Fire Department Chief Charles Hood reprimanded Steele for wearing a fake uniform during a political event at the Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters last month. City policy prohibits public safety employees from wearing their uniforms when participating in political activity.
Some have criticized Steele for being out of touch with the union’s rank-and-file members after 14 years as head of the union, with duties that have pulled him away from shift work.
Contrary to the “union boss … caricature painted by the City,” Brockhouse said, “the man I know is a faith-based, God-fearing family man. Both families: the union and his family at home.”
The fact that he hasn’t been performing duties as a firefighter is irrelevant, Brockhouse said. “When you’re elected to the union leadership, that’s your full-time job. … [If someone’s] certifications lapse, that does not make them no longer a police officer or firefighter.”
Power of the Props
On Nov. 6, San Antonio voters will see three propositions on their ballots, which would A) make it easier to place referenda on future ballots to challenge City Council decisions, B) limit future city managers’ pay and tenure, and C) force binding arbitration for labor union contracts. Prop A also would expand which kinds of ordinances could be put to a vote to include utility rates, budgets for city departments, taxes, and more. Compared to the union’s previous efforts to kill a streetcar and pipeline proposal, these changes would have a much greater impact – for better or worse – on the City’s ability to govern.
Steele, however, might not be able to vote on those propositions. The address he listed with the City as his place of residence is in Converse, according to a City spokesperson. Many firefighters live outside City limits; if Steele lives in Converse, he would not be eligible to vote for or against the propositions.
These propositions are not a result of Steele’s ambitions, Brockhouse said, but rather the result of a lack of leadership at and trust in City Hall. Brockhouse has said he will run for mayor but has not officially launched his campaign.
By decreasing the threshold for referenda and expanding the type of ordinances voters can place on the ballot, the “vote yes” camp says voters can better hold City Hall accountable. But those new rules in Prop A also would let special interests – with deep pockets for petition consultants – flood ballots with referenda and overturn decisions by City Council that keep it functioning, say supporters of Go Vote No, the political action committee formed to defeat the propositions. That chaotic environment would lead to a decreased bond rating and increased interest rates and taxes, they say.
Limiting the city manager’s salary is one proposal Brockhouse said he would not likely support. It wouldn’t impact current City Manager Sheryl Sculley and it would limit the kind of talent the City could recruit for the job, he said.
Some say Prop C is the real reason for the other two. It would essentially allow the union to declare an impasse in contract talks and force binding arbitration in place of a more public negotiation with attorneys and experts on both sides, similar to what the police union and City engaged in three years ago. Those negotiations yielded a new police contract in November 2016.
Prop C, Steele has said, will ensure a “good faith” process without burdening the City and taxpayers with legal fees.
The current proposition fight is not the first time Steele has stepped into the political arena under the banner of helping citizens. In 2014, the union joined a successful petition drive against a proposed downtown streetcar project. Then-Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff called off the project, and voters later approved the charter amendment that subjects all future streetcar and light rail projects to a public vote. In 2016, the union publicly opposed the controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline project but ultimately failed in that endeavor.
Steele Steps Back
Political rhetoric has intensified this summer, and Steele’s public appearances have become fewer and farther between. Most notably, he canceled a planned debate with Mayor Ron Nirenberg last month. He also has declined about a dozen requests from the City to start negotiating a new labor contract – which would include raises but likely a new, less favorable health care plan. San Antonio firefighters, who pay no premiums for themselves or their dependents, have one of the best health care plans in the state.
“I’ve been negotiating union agreements for 40 years, and I’ve never seen [union-City relations escalate] quite like this,” said Jeffrey Londa, a Houston-based labor attorney who represented the City in the police union negotiations. “Generally unions and companies [or cities] like to get agreements done on time.”
The union’s contract expired in September 2014. Because of an “evergreen clause,” the terms of the most recent contract stay in place for 10 years if both parties fail to reach a new agreement. But raises don’t come with that deal.
“What baffles me is the union membership is okay with no raises,” Londa said.
Healthcare costs are increasing nationwide, he said, and it’s time that firefighters start paying into those costs, just like the police do.
“But you don’t keep that job in the union world unless you have support of the membership,” Brockhouse said, so Steele must be doing something right by taking the propositions to the ballot.
It’s unclear how many of the city’s firefighters, all of whom are union members, participated in a vote about the amendments or what the results were. The union did not respond to a request for that information by deadline.
Steele took another step back, at least publicly, from the lead of the effort to get those changes approved by voters on Thursday when he installed surrogate speakers at a press conference held at the union’s headquarters. He refused to answer questions from reporters about a leaked, 49-second audio recording of him outlining his political plans to get Brockhouse into the mayor’s office.
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The recording came from an unidentified firefighter who shared it with Go Vote No, according to Christian Archer, a longtime local political consultant who is managing that campaign.
“There are firefighters willing to release tapes of him,” Archer said, a signal that not all union members think the propositions are worthwhile.
“This is not about Chris Steele, this is about the citizens,” former District 10 City Council candidate and “lifelong Republican” Reinette King said as she stood behind the podium from which Steele usually delivers his statements.
It was Steele who launched the San Antonio First campaign in front of City Hall in February – saying it was time to “let the voters decide” on critical City functions.
It was the firefighters union, of which he has been president for more than a decade, that paid a Buda-based consultant $505,000 to collect a vast majority of signatures for the petitions. It was Steele who led union members up the stairs to City Hall to deliver 15 boxes of those signatures to be counted by the City Clerk.
On the day Steele delivered the signatures, a group of people with their own varying issues with City Hall stood with him. Some spoke, others did not. It’s these groups, Steele said, the petitions are intended to empower. He claimed they came to the union to ask for help and he obliged – just as they did with the streetcar proposal.
But the day after the audio clip was released, Steele turned the podium over to those other Vote Yes advocates.
The firefighter’s recording and subsequent leak to Go Vote No, Archer said, is a signal that firefighters are starting to feel the heat from being associated with these “destructive” propositions – and the absence of a new contract and wages.
More recordings like the one released this week are coming, Archer added.
If Steele won’t show up and talk about the issues, Archer said, then “have no fear,” firefighters will speak up.