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City Councilman John Courage (D9) at a Thursday town hall told constituents why they should vote down three City charter amendments proposed by the local firefighters union.
Reinette King, who has been serving as a spokesperson for the pro-amendments San Antonio First campaign, argued in favor of Propositions A, B, and C.
More than 20 people came to Methodist Stone Oak Hospital for the forum, which the GoVoteNo Political Action Committee coordinated. Colleen Waguespack, Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development chair and president, moderated the debate that took place around the same time more than 1,000 proposition opponents joined several City and business leaders at the Pearl to rally against the proposals.
King, who unsuccessfully ran for the Council seat in District 10 in 2017, said Prop A would make it easier for the public to get a referendum on the ballot. That measure calls for reducing the required number of signatures to land a petition on the ballot and giving petitioners more time to collect them.
Advocates say Prop would allow voters to cast ballots on major ordinances, initiatives, and other actions currently approved by the Council. The City charter currently requires 70,000 certified signatures; Prop A calls for lowering that number to 20,000 – less than 3 percent of the current number of the City’s registered voters.
“If it’s good enough for the City charter, which is like our constitution, it should be good enough for an ordinance passed by the City Council,” King said.
She denounced opponents’ stance that approving Prop A would pit neighborhoods against each other as a small percentage of San Antonio’s electorate could potentially determine the fate of citywide ordinances.
“Once you get the petition, you only get [your initiative] on the ballot to be voted on by all the citizens of San Antonio,” King said. “It’s not going to be one neighborhood forcing something on another.”
Courage said he and others worry that approving Prop A would encourage special interest groups unhappy with certain things – the City budget or a tax rate, for example – to petition for a referendum.
The current petition and referendum process is not broken, Courage said, and, if people are unhappy with how their Council representative votes, they should instead seek to unseat that person in the next election.
“All of these issues start to boil up when you change a reasonable requirement to … something that is going to … enable small special interest groups with narrow interests to create the kind of turmoil I think could prevent your City Council from functioning well,” he added.
Prop B would limit future City managers’ terms to eight years and their salary to 10 times the amount of the lowest-paid City employee’s pay – measures to keep in check the city manager’s authority, King said.
“We feel the balance of power is out of whack in our city,” she said.
King also brushed aside opponents’ assertion that limiting the City manager’s salary and tenure could jeopardize the City’s AAA bond rating and discourage investment in municipal projects and commerce.
“We’re one of the few cities that has a strong manager/weak Council municipal government,” she said. “We … need measures in place to protect the citizens so that the City manager doesn’t usurp too much control.”
Though Prop B’s verbiage only mentions future city managers, King said if the proposal were to pass, its limits should immediately apply to current City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
Courage responded that Sculley works on a continuing contract at the Council’s discretion, so a successful Prop B would not apply to her. He also rejected amendment backers’ opinion that Sculley’s $475,000 base salary is not in keeping with her contemporaries around the region.
Sculley has generally performed well in her job, he said, and if any prior Councils had felt otherwise, she’d have been replaced by now. Approving Prop B, Courage added, would discourage top talent from considering San Antonio City management positions in the future.
“No one from Dallas, Fort Worth, even Arlington would want to come to San Antonio earning that kind of money and be told eight years later, ‘You’ve got to go and find another job,’” he said.
Prop C would force the City and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association into binding arbitration to settle their years-long dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement.
Opponents say binding arbitration could ultimately compel the City to raise taxes and/or cut back on basic services. King said the City and amendment critics are blowing that argument out of proportion.
“The arbitration board, which is chosen by both sides, is limited and must consider compensation in other cities, Consumer Price Index, the revenue available, and the impact of any arbitration ruling on the taxpayers,” King added.
Courage cited the City’s repeated attempts to negotiate and the union’s refusal to do so because of the City’s lawsuit over the evergreen clause, which keeps firefighters’ current contract in place for 10 years if no new agreement is reached.
The last collective bargaining agreement expired in 2014. The Texas Supreme Court in June opted not to consider the City’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling in favor of the union.
Courage suggested the firefighters union take a page out of the book of the police union, which after years of heated negotiations agreed on a “favorable contract” with the City. That contract mandates police officers’ dependents pay health premiums, purportedly saving the City $87 million over a number of years.
“When the City was able to negotiate with the union on a police contract, that model became a reasonable guide for the firefighter union negotiations,” he said. “But not this time. The fire union is apparently demanding a better contract than the police union received.”
King said approving all three proposals would be a victory for the public.
“If voters were to vote for Propositions A, B and C, they win,” she said. “They’ll have a bigger voice in local government, taxpayers would have more control, and we’ll finally have a contract with the firefighters.”
Courage countered that the charter amendment election is the union’s way of getting “leverage.”
“The entire City loses and your future loses,” he added.