Fire Union Boss Steele Seeks to Gain Power by Targeting It

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San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele listens to questions from reporters following the press conference.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele wears a fake uniform while speaking during a press conference at Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters September 20.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know if the three proposed charter changes the firefighters union has put on next month’s ballot will be as bad for San Antonio as the mayor and other leaders say.

But I do know this: If voters pass those measures, they will make Chris Steele, the fire union chief, one of the most powerful men in San Antonio.

Almost as powerful as Harold Flammia.

Many of you may not know Flammia because you are too young or you came here in the past 25 years. After all, Flammia has been quiet since returning from federal prison in the early 2000s.

But Flammia was a historic figure in San Antonio, and he was one tough dude. Having nearly died from bullet wounds sustained in a shootout with a burglar he had cornered, he recovered to be elected police union president in 1985. At the time, San Antonio Police Department officers ranked a pathetic 30th in pay – not in the nation, but in Texas.

Flammia built his power base the old-fashioned way. He persuaded members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association to make political action committee dues mandatory and eventually quadrupled them. At one point, the union’s PAC was the largest contributor to the mayor and City Council.

He built up one of the city’s most effective phone banks and one of its best data sets of voter information. Friendly politicians were given access to the data, and unfriendly politicians were targeted by the phone banks.

Flammia was so pugnacious a union leader that citizens who filed official complaints about excessive force could find themselves sued for slander.

In 1988, Flammia negotiated the richest labor contract in Texas. Not only were the officers well-paid, they also received gold-plated health insurance coverage with no deductibles or copays for them or their families.

Most revolutionary was a new retirement health insurance scheme in which each officer would pay $50 a month (offset by a new $50 monthly “uniform allowance”) and the City $67 a month, for which the officers could retire with the same no-cost health insurance they and their families had while working.

Here’s how much clout Flammia had at City Hall: The City Council passed the contract with only one dissenting vote. The next agenda item was to order up an actuarial study on whether the $117 per month per employee were enough to pay for lifetime medical benefits for employees who could retire after 20 years. The actuarial study found that the fund was underfunded by about 40 percent, or about $107 million over the first 20 years.

The contract included numerous other frills – too many to cover here – but one led to Flammia’s troubles with the law.

The contract provided for a new fund to provide non-work-related legal benefits for the police officers. It covered wills, real estate matters, divorces, and so on. The fund was so lucrative that it enabled the law firm that won the contract to pay Flammia more than $500,000 in bribes over the next few years. That earned him a four-and-a-half year federal prison sentence.

With the infamous 1988 contract and subsequent ones, the firefighters union was given “me too” contracts. Without making all the political contributions and maintaining the phone bank and voter lists, firefighters were awarded the same pay and benefits – including the super-rich retirement health plan. In other words, they rode on the power that Flammia had created.

Although the police union did quite well on its most recent labor contract, Steele and his firefighters union has not gone along. Instead, he has originated a new form of political clout. You might call it political extortion.

Steele had tried conventional politics. He and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association endorsed former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte's mayoral bid in 2015. That may have backfired, helping Ivy Taylor carry conservatives on the North Side and win a tight runoff with Van de Putte. Then in 2017, Steele and his union endorsed Manuel Medina, the Democratic county chairman who ran as a Trumpian Republican. He got 15 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the union found it was more successful attacking City programs. In 2014, it joined a petition drive against an expensive downtown streetcar project. The petition drive succeeded, and Taylor joined County Judge Nelson Wolff in pulling the plug on the widely unpopular project. In 2016, the union came out against the Vista Ridge water pipeline project, but this time, it lost.

Now Steele and the union are taking the strategy further. They’re not targeting the political establishment’s projects. They’re targeting its power by seeking to change the City charter that gives City officials power.

One proposal would make it nearly four times as easy for citizens to gather petitions to overturn city ordinances, changing the number of signatures needed for a referendum to reverse an ordinance from more than 70,000 to 20,000 while changing the time available to collect those signatures from 40 days to 180 days.

It also would give voters the ability to overturn actions that are currently not subject to referendums – including zoning decisions, tax hikes, and even rate hikes by CPS Energy and SAWS.

To be so easily able to second-guess the City’s elected officials is a direct assault on their power.

Another amendment would target the city manager, who under the City’s charter has huge power. Sheryl Sculley flexed that power skillfully by persuading the Council to take on the issue of the police and fire medical benefits. The battle became personal.

So Steele has proposed limiting the manager’s pay to 10 times that of the lowest-paid city worker, or about $300,000. Sculley made $550,000 last year, including a bonus. It would also limit her now unlimited tenure to eight years.

As Steele points out, Sculley’s pay is more than that of the U.S. president and Texas governor combined, but it is also less than one-tenth of that of the average CEO of a corporation with the City of San Antonio’s revenue and workforce.

Ironically, Sculley is “grandmothered” and would be unaffected by these provisions. But they likely would significantly hamper City Council’s ability to recruit and retain top talent to replace her when the time comes.

Steele maintains that the union is engaged in a civic promotion of good government, working for a more democratic and open city. As if it was the League of Women Voters.

But he must know that if he spent more than a half-million dollars of his members’ dues to hire an out-of-town company to gather the signatures to put these populist amendments on the ballot without significant benefit to themselves, he would not be union president much longer.

No, this isn’t about reforms. It’s about letting the mayor and City Council know that the union can cause them a barrel of trouble if they don’t cave in the future.

It won’t make Steele as powerful as Harold Flammia, who literally held court in a room behind council chambers during council meetings. But it will make him far more powerful than any fire union chief has ever been.

13 thoughts on “Fire Union Boss Steele Seeks to Gain Power by Targeting It

  1. Isn’t this a commentary, or are weekly columnists an exception?

    I thought that non-profit, non-partisan news is not supposed to lobby on matters of voting, or participate in campaigning per 501(c)(3)?

    Where/how do you draw the line exactly? Similarly, is it really within the lines to publish highly partisan Tribune articles so long as you didn’t write them?

    As for the substance of your column:

    You’re right, I’m too young to know about Flammia, but that was interesting. It sounded to me that he was trying to make benefits for police equivalent (or greater) to that of military service. His tactics aside, it’s too bad we don’t live in a world where that is actually possible. That idea makes sense to me with all of the risk/stress associated with the job, and there probably wouldn’t be a shortage of police in town…and therefore not as much overtime and mistakes made due to that. Not a fan of the strong-arm tactics, sounds like a bully, but I do support both police and firefighters having a benefits package that sets themselves and their families up nicely considering they put their lives/health on the line. No one so far has indicated that they empathize with what their families have to go through if they did incur major injury or death or psychological trauma. That aspect must be just like the military. Military you get these benefits with 4 years active/4 inactive but police and firefighters will go through it for decades. So why aren’t the benefits for life similar? I don’t mean just because the fed budget is way bigger than the municipal, but thinking in terms of risk vs reward. No disrespect to teachers, they are our heroes in a different right, I couldn’t be one that’s for sure, but in my mind they are just not equivalent in that sense.

    • Thank you for your comment, Richard. The article is indeed a commentary and was mislabeled. We have corrected this.

      • Can you also fix the perma-link from all your articles “Don’t Miss
        Get Ready to Vote: Registration Deadlines, ID, Early Voting, and More” that
        links to this article rather than any actual voting guide? It would be helpful if someone looking for information on voting got relevant info, rather than a specific commentary about the issues on the ballot.

        Thanks.

  2. Thanks Rick!
    Great article and history lesson. Lets hope the people of San Antonio don’t fall for the the fire unions proposals. They need to pay for there health insurance like everybody else, their benefits are not sustainable.

  3. “He built up one of the city’s most effective phone banks and one of its best data sets of voter information. Friendly politicians were given access to the data, and unfriendly politicians were targeted by the phone banks.”

    “In 1988, Flammia negotiated the richest labor contract in Texas.”

    Hardly a negotiation if those on the other side of the table are more likely ty be friendly. Isn’t this the very reason why unions today have less clout in America than ever? They may have started out on bread and butter issues of safety, wages and working conditions, but then got just as greedy as the companies and politicians, and then kept going.

    Chris Steele is smart enough to know that the some of the unsustainable perks, if kept, would certainly require spending cuts in other areas of city government, a cut in services, and perhaps property tax increases.

    He just doesn’t care, making him just as morally corrupt as those he would espouse against. No, it makes him worse. Yet, in a city where voter turnout is apathetic, he may actually get these terrible proposals passed.

  4. Interesting thought on having VA-like benefits. Perhaps, if the police and fire departments had military-like pay structures it would be more credible.

  5. The opposition to the proposed City Charter Amendments can never clearly show how passage will harm the city, instead it resorts to personal attacks against Local 624 President
    Chris Steele. Steele isn’t seeking personal power unlike the mayor/City Council. He seeks justice for the 1,500 San Antonio firefighters that risk their lives night and day saving our lives, putting out fires!
    San Antonio needs these firefighters, not more anti-union lies!

    • Benito,

      I will point you to the following quote from an SA current article in August of this year; “However, prior to council’s vote, St. Mary’s University economist Steve Nivin warned the alterations would ultimately shake confidence in city government, stifle economic development and drain public coffers. He estimated they would have an economic impact of $382.3 million to $4.2 billion over the next 20 years”

      The city charter requires any charter amendment up for a vote has to have an Economic Impact Assessment by an independent party.

      https://www.sanantonio.gov/City-Attorney/Nov2018Election

      and you can look through the city charter to see the requirements of amendments to the city charter;
      https://www.sanantonio.gov/Portals/0/Files/Clerk/2015amended-charter.pdf

      I personally find it deplorable to think that a simple petition could override our democratic process. And that is exactly what these amendments do. We vote and elect leaders for each of the San Antonio districts, we entrust them to make decision on our behalf, and if they don’t follow what the voters (who supported them at the ballot) then the voters can choose to vote them out (it is not like there is a whole lot of time from election to election). To think that our city manager, not the current one as she is grandfathered in regardless of these amendments, would be making less than the city manager for Bryan, Texas is ridiculous and would set San Antonio back from being able to recruit the best city manager in the future.

      I personally do not understand the efforts of the Fire Union chief, other than he likes to be in the press and he clearly does not like losing. I do not think he represents many of the fire fighters in our community. But I think we can all agree that we support the men and women in the SA firefighters ranks.

      • With all due respect, Dr. Steve Nivin is a former city employee who still supports CoSA analysis. I met with Dr. Nivin regarding the analysis he performed regarding economic incentives for the city. He was unable to recall the specific abatements he cited as examples, but assured me they were real examples. Unfortunately, there were no actual abatements within the City’s database that matched his “real” examples, so I remain skeptical. He also cited atypical payback cases in his examples to the Council for that analysis, using only 6yr/50% abatement examples in his presentations whereas the most common incentive is really 10yr/100%, according to EDD personnel who were present at that meeting. Dr. Nivin’s “examples” created a positively skewed perception of the actual risks and rewards.

        The city EDD also declined to actually share that report, only using Dr. Nivin’s slides. The public is not provided anything but slides.

        In Dr. Nivin’s current slides in the link above, the entering argument was that policy uncertainty was a foregone conclusion in reducing growth, but there did not appear to be any citations to support that. What scholarly research leads him to select the reduction values he chose?

        Conspicuously absent from his slides is also “slower than what?” He says it might be up to 1.25% slower, but what number is he subtracting from? He never discloses the actual predictions and what variables may affect them.

        I will take any economic analysis that is only supported by slides from the City with a very large grain of salt. If they wish to support a report’s conclusions by publicly disclosing the actual report, any assumptions, and supporting data, along with a bibliography of the “extensive research” then that might be a different story.

    • How passage will harm the city? Well, our COSA budget has suffered ever increasing costs due to Public Safety expenditures.That started in the 80’s as article states. Citizens of San Antonio, the vast majority of us do not have benefits/entitlements as current Public Safety workers. Open your eyes/mind to what these cost will be 5, 10, 20 years in the future. Anyway, let Fire Union evergreen run its course and start anew, no COSA wage increases for them, but, I bet our Public Safety costs will still rise. Glad to read RC “commentary”.

      Bexar 2099

  6. Thank you for the reminder about Flammia, Rick. Please continue commenting, and please don’t stop the “Just This …” weekly podcasts. We-the-people continually need the Fourth Estate’s established and excellent elders involved in local politics.

  7. Regarding the part of the article that says:

    “Most revolutionary was a new retirement health insurance scheme in which each officer would pay $50 a month (offset by a new $50 monthly “uniform allowance”) and the City $67 a month, for which the officers could retire with the same no-cost health insurance they and their families had while working.

    Here’s how much clout Flammia had at City Hall: The City Council passed the contract with only one dissenting vote.”

    Who was the city council member that made the one dissenting vote?

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