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Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) and San Antonio First spokesman David Van Os went toe to toe Monday night debating the three propositions San Antonio voters will see on the November ballot.
The debate was tense from the beginning: Pelaez said the measures – placed on the ballot by the local firefighters union, which has been embroiled in a years-long battle with the City over its labor contract – are political ploys to “start fires” at City Hall. By the end of the night, Van Os said he had “never been so rudely insulted publicly.”
Pelaez maintained he didn’t intend to insult; rather he wanted to call out the propositions for what they are and Van Os for doing the union’s political work.
“I’m not a member of the firefighters union,” Van Os told the crowd of more than 40 people at the Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park. Throughout the debate, organized by the Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, Pelaez and Van Os were not supposed to directly address each other, but they often did. “I’m not here just on behalf of the firefighters union,” Van Os added.
Van Os and fellow campaign volunteer Reinette King were installed as spokespeople for the campaign after San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele took a step back from that role last week. Steele retreated after a recording of him talking about the union’s political goals was leaked and the opposing Go Vote No campaign continued to call into question Steele’s credibility.
Rather, Van Os said, he joined the San Antonio First campaign – launched by the firefighters union earlier this year and recently promoted as Approved By Citizens – because of his staunch belief that voters should have a stronger say in their democracy.
“I’m here on behalf of over 100,000 citizens” who signed petitions to get the measures on the ballot, said Van Os, an attorney who represented the union in a 2005 lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Go Vote No campaign is “demonizing” Steele, he added.
If approved, Proposition A would relax requirements for and expand the scope of future ballot initiatives aimed at challenging City Council decisions; Proposition B would limit future city managers’ tenure to eight years and compensation to no more than 10 times the lowest-paid full-time City employee’s pay; and Proposition C would allow the fire union to force binding arbitration with the City for a new labor contract that dictates wages, raises, healthcare premiums, and more.
But it’s the fire union that paid more than $500,000 to an out-of-town firm to collect enough signatures to get these City Charter changes on the ballot, Pelaez said, listing several instances in which Steele’s motives for a power grab became apparent.
“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck,” Pelaez said, “seriously, I’m a duck and it’s all about the fire union.”
Pelaez and Van Os were each given 15 minutes to present their case to the audience. A Q&A session followed. Here’s a summary of the discussion:
Van Os: It only requires 20,000 signatures to get a City Charter change on the ballot, but more than 70,000 to get challenges to City Council decisions on the ballot. “Prop A proposes the same number of signatures [be] required.”
Voters should be able to overturn City Council decisions and be trusted to make those decisions, he said, as that is the fundamental principle of democracy.
“I give more credit to the intelligence of voters,” he said.
He clarified that 20,000 signatures does not pass anything – it mandates a proposition go to a public vote.
Pelaez: This is not about elevating democracy, he said, but if “it fits on a bumper sticker, it sounds great.” But the math doesn’t add up, Pelaez said, noting that bond rating agencies have said they will downgrade San Antonio – which would mean higher interest rates – if Prop A is approved.
That means more money will go toward paying interest than toward funding infrastructure projects like sidewalks, streets, and drainage.
Prop A would make it easier and cheaper for special interest groups – such as those against civil rights for the LGBTQIA community or a developer who wants a zoning rule changed – to “pressure the City” with the threat of ballot propositions, Pelaez said.
Van Os: “San Antonio has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S.,” he said. “If [City Manager Sheryl Sculley is] so good, why is [that]?”
Sculley’s more than $500,000 salary, he said, is “an obscenity.”
After the debate, Van Os told the Rivard Report and an attendee that he was “not 100 percent” on board with the term limit.
Pelaez: “This is not going to impact the current City manager,” he said, and passing Prop B would mean the City would have about $300,000 to recruit the next one.
He imagined how a recruiting conversation might go: “If you do a really good job, we’re going to fire you in eight years. Sign on the dotted line and move your family to San Antonio.”
Essentially, he added, “you get what you pay for.”
Van Os: The union’s goal is to end the years-long, unofficial impasse with the City, he said, and binding arbitration would help put in place a contract so everyone could move on.
“This puts an end to the acrimony and the public debate and accusations,” he said. “It’s not just a blank check,” as arbiters may not give the union all it wants.
Pelaez: As a labor attorney, he has seen how arbitration works – and doesn’t.
“Arbitration doesn’t work in instances like this,” Pelaez said. “[The public] won’t be able to hear or see it” because it will take place behind closed doors with arbiters who don’t answer to the people of San Antonio.
There would be no room for appeals and no requirements to balance the contract with the City’s budget. The fire union should at least attempt to negotiate, which the City has offered to do almost a dozen times.
After the debate, local attorney Steve Sanders, who came to learn more about the propositions, said he “learned a ton.”
While he has not made up his mind, he’s leaning toward voting yes on Prop A, but no on Prop B and C.
“It’s 20,000 registered voters to put something on the ballot … I agree that it’s about democracy, and I love that,” Sanders said, but the two other propositions seem to be more about the union’s issues with the City.
“B and C are a little bit of the firefighters being a little chapped about … not getting a contract done.”