Fire Union Petitions Eligible for November Ballot

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San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall on April 11.

Each of the fire union’s petitions to change the City of San Antonio’s charter obtained the 20,000 signatures required to place them on the Nov. 6 ballot, City Clerk Leticia Vacek verified on Thursday.

Out of the 97,312 petitions submitted in April – that’s more than 32,000 for each petition – 60,499 were valid, Vacek said.

Most of the 36,813 void petitions were tossed out because the signee was not registered to vote or lived outside City limits. Others did not count toward the petition due to missing data.

Barring any legal challenge, voters will decide if the City’s charter, or constitution, should include language that limits future city managers’ salaries and tenure, forces binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract, and makes it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote. The latter could lead to voters overturning City Council decisions such as utility rate increases.

City Attorney Andy Segovia said it was “premature” to comment on whether the City will challenge the legality of the petitions’ language.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s so-called “San Antonio First” campaign is all about giving voters a stronger voice, fire union President Chris Steele told the Rivard Report after the meeting, and “letting the people decide.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg has said the union’s proposed changes would have “devastating effects” on the city.

An analysis by the City Attorney’s Office states that the changes, if approved by voters, “will severely undermine the ability of the City Council to consider and implement policy, particularly long-term initiatives,” especially budget and tax issues; effectively neuter the collective bargaining process “before any good faith negotiations” occur; and “limit the ability to recruit and retain talent for leadership positions … The limitations on hiring the best City Manager candidate may impact the City’s bond rating.”

The proposal regarding the city manager’s pay and tenure would not retroactively apply to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whom some criticized for her total $525,000 compensation and job review process last year and others have praised as leading San Antonio’s transition into a more professional, prosperous city.

The petition called for an eight-year limit for the city manager position and total compensation limited to 10 times what the lowest-paid full-time City employee earns. As of March 2018, that was $29,640 – meaning the next city manager’s salary would be capped at about $300,000.

Click here to download the city attorney’s memo and here for the city clerk’s Thursday presentation to City Council.

Nirenberg has said San Antonio would become a “referendum state” where local government is paralyzed by special interest groups that leverage the threat of an election.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations in March.

“[Some City Council members and the mayor] want people to vote for them, but not for their policies,” Steele said during a phone interview, responding to concerns that City laws would become volatile to special interests. “[They are saying], ‘I’m smarter than the people.'”

He said the union might try to collect signatures for yet another petition calling for “no more executive sessions.”

Following City Council’s closed-door meeting earlier this month that resulted in the City declining to pursue a bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention, Steele said he has heard that some community members want him to lead another signature campaign.

He is considering it, he said, adding that the San Antonio First campaign started with community input and citizens coming to the fire union for help.

Meanwhile, fire union officials refuse to negotiate a new contract with the City as long as the municipal government continues to pursue an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court that challenges the current contract’s so-called “evergreen” clause that keeps the terms in place for 10 years or until a new agreement is reached.

City leaders have said the petition drive is a result of this impasse and the evergreen clause, and that the union has no incentive to negotiate a new contract because the current one won’t expire until 2024.

Steele maintains these are separate issues.

“This is the people’s campaign, this is not the firefighters,” Steele said.

If the fire union’s items make it onto the ballot, no other charter reform items will, Nirenberg has said. The City has until Aug. 20 to call for a charter amendment election. The Charter Review Commission was slated to recommend several amendments, including changes to Council member term limits, but those will likely be placed on hold.

“…[I]t doesn’t make sense to confuse voters with additional ballot propositions,” Nirenberg said last week.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who has worked as a political consultant for the police and fire unions before taking office last year, does not agree with all the petitions. However, he said City officials should not work against getting them on the ballot now that the signatures are verified.

“The City Council’s piece in this is purely administerial,” Brockhouse said. “At the end of the day … we have no choice, we can’t stop this. It’s going to go on the ballot. It should go on the ballot.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks with members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks with members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association when the petitions were delivered in April.

He cautioned against aggressive campaigns elected officials and business leaders are expected to wage against the ballot items in order to get voters to reject the measures in November.

“It was ultimately residents who signed it,” Brockhouse said. “Regardless of who led it … It’s going to be a contentious few months.”

Nirenberg said he will actively engage in initiatives against the measures.

“It is the duty I take very seriously as a member of this council, but also as mayor of this city, to not remain agnostic when people attempt to hurt this city – which is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the motivation behind [these] petitions,” he said.

“We do hope the citizens of this city take notice of what’s happening here to make sure they have a say in the future – a positive future – for the city.”

Asked after the meeting when such a campaign will launch, Nirenberg said simply, “It has begun.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) said City Council has the responsibility to “make sure all the voters are adequately informed about the consequences of the results of their vote on these issues. Personally I believe that many of the signers of these petitions were not well informed about what they were signing.”

Courage said several people reached out to him saying they wanted to take back their signature after learning more about the impact the petitions would have. Some media reports, including a column in the San Antonio Express-News, have found that some people weren’t clear on what the language meant.

“[Regretful petition signers] can’t legally or officially take action, but they can publicly state their unhappiness,” Segovia told reporters via a City spokesperson.

Steele rejected the notion that people didn’t understand what they were signing.

“What amazes me is that in America they still can say things like that,” he said. “We have an educated population. They read before they signed.

If they didn’t know what they were signing, he added, “then it will fail … [but] we’re pretty sure it’ll pass.”

12 thoughts on “Fire Union Petitions Eligible for November Ballot

  1. I am an educated person and feel I make well informed decisions. When at the ballot box, there are some positions I won’t vote for because I am uninformed of the people running for those offices. I just don’t feel my vote should become an uneducated guess. I vote in the hopes of improving the quality of my life in one area or another. What if I were to make a random vote and find out that the person I voted for believes in stances contrary to my beliefs but they got my vote due to my ignorance. For many people, when they vote in bigger elections that include offices on the ballot they didn’t even know existed, that’s basically what’s happening…random voting due to being uniformed.

    Now imagine the average citizen voting on every referendum that came our way. A citizen might show up to vote because they want their voice heard on a particular referendum only to find out there are several other referendums also on the ballot that they are ignorant of. Imagine the results of these voters randomly choosing, making an uneducated guess on a referendum they were not expecting.

    I vote for my elected officials because I don’t want to have to research every decision that needs to be made. That’s my elected officials job! I vote for the candidate I feel is best for the office because I don’t want to have to micromanage those put in charge. Why even have a city council if we’re just going to undermine every decision they make? Why do I want to go to the polls every time some special interest group is unhappy with a decision that is made? That leads to more elections, which leads to more voter apathy, which we all know leads to lower voter turn out.

    I definitely don’t want people who I feel make bad financial decisions to be voting on such things as utility rate increases. Of course, I do not want to pay any more than I have to. But I also understand that to maintain financial solvency, that is sometimes necessary. What happens when you have voters voting against a necessary rate increase because they just don’t want to have to pay more? When decisions are made solely to save money, these are the type of decisions that lead to lower quality, financial instability, reductions in work force and bankruptcy.

    Let the experts continue to advise the city council so that the council (who are actually paying attention to issues put before them) can make educated decisions. Don’t let any random Joe ignorant of half the ballot make those decisions.

    • In general, I agree with you.

      However, do you actually know what the “necessary” rate increases from SAWS were last year? I’d wager you don’t, because SAWS didn’t tell you, nor did the Council.

      SAWS publicized rate adjustments (that’s what their slides said) of 0.9% for Water Delivery, 3.2% for Water Supply, and 1.7% for Wastewater. These are all false. The actual rate adjustments are 4.5% for Water Supply, 9.7% for Water Delivery and 3.6% for Wastewater. Look it up in their budget – SAWS has finally released it – and compare it to their handouts from last October in community meetings.

      As for whether the Council (and the Mayor) actually pay attention, you may find it interesting that one Council member finally asked SAWS on Dec 4 – months into the process and after a month-long delay – why the proposed ordinance differed from the briefing slides. The answer is simple: it’s because SAWS was misleading the public and the Council with disingenuous language. The Mayor knew. Some Council members knew, but no one stood up and said “C’mon Mr. Puente, just spell it out for the public as it’s written in the ordinance – rates are going up more than you claim.”

      This Mayor and this Council may reap what they have sown with their lack of attention, and their lack of clarity.

      I find the firefighters’ union actions to be extremely selfish, but – specifically regarding SAWS’ rate increases – I am even more disappointed in the Council as led by the current Mayor. And I will vote for the ballot initiative that lets me revoke rate increases – because this Joe really does pay more attention than the Council when it comes to SAWS.

      (Oh, and for the record, I think SAWS really did need the rate increase; but they’re too lazy to make an honest case for it with full disclosure – because they know the Council won’t call them out.)

      • Joe, thanks for informing me of that. You’re definitely right, I didn’t know that. But it only adds to my point.

        In my experience, only very few people I come in contact with seem to be fully informed about the issues. I do not claim to be extremely informed like yourself , in fact I’m probably just as ignorant on some issues as I am informed about others. But I feel that I am usually more informed than most voters I come in contact with. I don’t mean they don’t agree with me so I don’t listen, instead, they don’t seem to be able to give me any information to help me make better voting decisions, sometimes showing they only know the basics they overheard on the news.

        So if I didn’t know about the lying statistics because no one is talking about it, then through my experience my claim is that the average voter doesn’t know either. You are diligent enough to do the research to discover the truth while so many people don’t even know anything about how SAWS operates beyond what they see on their monthly water bill. Go ahead, go out and ask random people (not your social circle or similar people, birds of a feather) about how SAWS operates and your not going to get responses that come close to matching your knowledge on SAWS.

    • David, it looks like you are implying that the citizens are not smart enough to make informed decisions or are, like you said you are, are too apathetic to do the research needed. I’m sure there are plenty of citizens, unlike yourself, in San Antonio who are smart enough to actually read and research all aspects of decisions before voting.

      • Nicole, I never said there aren’t plenty of citizens who do the research. But there are plenty who don’t as well. You seem to take general statements and automatically assume they apply to all. I sure didn’t, that’s why I generalized about the average citizen.

        You also make the wrong assumption about my post by claiming my lack of research has to do with voting. My comments weren’t about the issues we can currently vote for. Instead, my comments were about those decisions that are not put up to a vote, that the citizenship currently has no say to because we elected others to make decisions for us.

        So that means I didn’t/don’t want a vote (but I still reserve the right to give input on) on issues such as who won the river barge contract last year, I don’t want to vote on the sticking points of short term rentals, I don’t want to vote on whether street #1 on the opposite side of town really needs to be redone before street #2, I don’t want to vote on whether we should pursue the RNC/DNC nor do I want a vote on whether we should pursue another Final Four. I don’t want to have to vote for every proposed ordinance. What’s the purpose of having elected officials if they aren’t allowed to make any decisions because the voters vote for them all instead?

        You made a comment on how smart you think I am not but apparently you aren’t smart enough to even understand I wasn’t talking about researching voting issues that the law currently allows. Your whole reply isn’t even germane so it kind of scares me to think of the voting decisions you make because you might misunderstand the issues just like you misunderstood my post.

  2. Can we start a petition to remove Christopher Steele as the fire union president? Asking for a friend.

    • No, but we can start a petition to eliminate the Collective Bargaining authority from the fire fighters’ union. And we can do it every single year. It’s the law!

      http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/SOTWDocs/LG/htm/LG.174.htm

      Sec. 174.053. REPEAL ELECTION. (a) The governing body of a political subdivision in which the collective bargaining provisions of this chapter have been in effect for at least one year shall order an election for the repeal of the adoption of this chapter on receiving a petition signed by qualified voters of the political subdivision in a number equal to or greater than the lesser of:

      (1) 20,000; or
      (2) five percent of the number of qualified voters voting in the political subdivision in the preceding general election for state and county officers.

      (b) The ballot in the election shall be printed to provide for voting for or against the proposition: “Repeal of the adoption of the state law applicable to (fire fighters, police officers, or both, as applicable) that establishes collective bargaining if a majority of the affected employees favor representation by an employees association, preserves the prohibition against strikes and lockouts, and provides penalties for strikes and lockouts.”

      Added by Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 269, Sec. 4, eff. Sept. 1, 1993.

      Sec. 174.054. EFFECT OF SUCCESSFUL REPEAL ELECTION. If a majority of the votes cast in an election under Section 174.053 favor repeal of the adoption of this chapter, the collective bargaining provisions of this chapter are void as to the political subdivision.

      Added by Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 269, Sec. 4, eff. Sept. 1, 1993.

      Sec. 174.055. FREQUENCY OF ELECTIONS. If an election for the adoption or the repeal of the adoption of this chapter is held under this subchapter, a like petition for a subsequent election may not be submitted before the first anniversary of the date of the preceding election.

      Acts 1993, 73rd Leg., ch. 269, Sec. 4, eff. Sept. 1, 1993.

  3. If Steele wants to be mayor he should run for office. What he truly is after, though, is what union presidents all aspire to, and that is to be dictators.

    As for signers having read the petition, I saw that plenty in California. It’s always, “This is not saying you agree, we just want the people to decide.” I’ve never signed a petition because once a measure is on the ballot the misleading adds come out and who knows what will happen.

  4. We’d just be exchanging one tyranny for another. Ever talk to a Council Member? I have, with Trevino, and he just kept changing the subject. Tried on occasion to speak with even a rep of my Councilman Cruz Smith. Not a chance.

  5. This has never been about “letting the people decide.” This is only about what is good for the The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

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