San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall on April 11. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

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.
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. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“[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.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks with members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association when the petitions were delivered in April. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

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.

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“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.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com