Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Members of the firefighters union, its president, and a petition consultant delivered 15 boxes to the city clerk's office Wednesday morning. Inside the boxes were "more than 100,000" signatures in support of three petitions, Union President Chris Steele said.
It's the greatest number of signatures the office has ever received at once, City Clerk Leticia Vacek said as the group approached her office on the second floor of City Hall, adding that she is unsure how long it will take to verify that at least 20,000 signatures came from voters registered in San Antonio.
A petition to change the city charter requires 20,000 signatures within a 180-day period for it to go to voters on a citywide referendum. Launched on Feb. 20, the three petitions the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is collectively calling the "San Antonio First" initiative each garnered more than 31,000 in 50 days, Steele said.
Those petitions aim to limit future city managers' salary and tenure, force arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract, and make it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances to a public vote – and override City Council decisions – by requiring fewer signatures and allowing petitioners more time to collect them.
Each petition produced five boxes full of pages with signatures.
The goal is to "let the people decide" these issues rather than elected officials, Steele said. Around 50 supporters repeatedly chanted those words at a press conference on the back steps of City Hall.
In his office, Mayor Ron Nirenberg told reporters that the San Antonio First campaign is the union's attempts to distract from the real issues involved with its collective bargaining agreement, and that the fire union refuses to negotiate.
If the petitions make it onto the ballot, Nirenberg said, it will have "devastating effects" on the City, including diminishing its ability to attract top talent like City Manager Sheryl Sculley to its executive management, neutering the collective bargaining process, and turning the city into a "referendum state" like California where local government is paralyzed by special interest groups that leverage the threat of an election.
Steele maintains that the petitions have nothing to do with the union's contract – which expired in September 2014 – or the City's lawsuit and subsequent appeals to the Texas Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the "evergreen clause" that keeps the terms of the expired contract in place for 10 years until a new contract is signed.
Drop the lawsuit, Steele has said, and the union will be at the negotiating table the next day.
“Now that the petitions have been received, we are beginning the process of verification according to the law, which includes time stamping each page as received for each of the three petitions and verifying the number of pages," Vacek told the Rivard Report in an email. "After completing that process, we will work with the Bexar County Elections Department to utilize their system for verifying individual signatures and that the signers of the petitions are truly registered and qualified voters of the City of San Antonio.”
Steele claimed the union had "independently verified" at least 21,000 as qualified voter signatures. "We know they're there."
If the petitions make it onto a municipal ballot, Nirenberg said he will "challenge it at the ballot box," adding that he is confident that citizens, businesses, and organizations will too.
As firefighters and their consultant waited for the elevators at City Hall and local media made their way toward the stairs, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) watched from across the lobby. Brockhouse has worked as a political consultant for the police and fire unions in the past.
He may not agree with all the language in the petitions, Brockhouse said, but "it's their right" to file them.
"They got 'em pretty quick," he said of the signatures.
Meanwhile, the City's Charter Review Commission is expected to produce proposed revisions to the charter. Nirenberg directed the new commissioners to focus on issues related to development, public finance, ethics, and governance. Items for a special November election must be placed on the ballot by Aug. 20.
Typically, press conferences are held on the front steps of City Hall, but at the time of the union's event, workers were performing routine maintenance on cracks in the concrete.
Steele said the City scheduled the maintenance work on purpose; a City staffer said it was a coincidence.