San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele speaks during the scheduled press conference.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele wears a fake uniform while speaking during a press conference on Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters September 20. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele withdrew from a scheduled panel discussion Thursday night with Mayor Ron Nirenberg about three controversial proposed City charter amendments on the November ballot.

Christian Archer, campaign manager of the Go Vote No political action committee, speaks about Chris Steele cancelling the debate.
Christian Archer, campaign manager of the Go Vote No political action committee, speaks at Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s campaign headquarters. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Christian Archer, campaign manager of the Go Vote No political action committee formed to defeat the ballot measures, told the Rivard Report that he received word from the event’s organizers that Steele had canceled within hours of the scheduled start of the discussion, which was to take place at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Downtown Campus at 6:45 p.m.

Nirenberg subsequently canceled, according to UTSA’s newsroom Twitter account.

“[This] really should upset every taxpayer in San Antonio because the impacts of these amendments that he’s perpetrated – this fraud that he put on San Antonio taxpayers – would end up raising our taxes, lowering city services, and pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods, and making our economic momentum come to a screeching halt,” Nirenberg told reporters later at his campaign headquarters.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks about Chris Steele cancelling the debate.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg appears at his campaign headquarters after a panel discussion scheduled with fire union President Chris Steele was canceled. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Steele, who typically avoids public appearances outside of union-organized events, agreed to participate in the panel more than a month ago, Archer said. But a post on the union’s Facebook page Thursday night said the firefighters union never guaranteed its leader would take part.

After a press conference earlier Thursday at the Bexar County Democratic Party’s headquarters, where he officially celebrated the party’s endorsement of the propositions, Steele repeatedly refused to answer questions from reporters –including a question about whether he would attend the panel discussion – as he left the press conference and went to his vehicle.

The union leader also has refused about a dozen invitations from the City to start negotiating a new labor contract. Those invitations started in February 2014, before the current contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014.

After Steele pulled out Thursday evening, the firefighters union’s Vote YES campaign proposed sending Reinette King, one of its leaders, in Steele’s place, but Archer said the town hall-style event, hosted by the San Antonio Express-News and UTSA, could not take place without Steele.

“We agreed to meet and to do it with Chris Steele, because he’s the one that started these terrible propositions,” Archer said.

King is a health consultant and former Zoning Commission member who ran for the City Council District 10 seat in 2017.

“Reinette was among the core group of community stakeholders who came up with these propositions,” the union said in a statement released after Steele’s withdrawal. “… Chief Christopher Steele made the decision [to cancel] late today after visiting with multiple stakeholders who helped design these propositions.”

Reinette King speaks on behalf of San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele in the lobby of the Buena Vista St. Building at UTSA Downtown Campus.
Reinette King speaks on behalf of San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele in the lobby of the Buena Vista St. Building at UTSA Downtown Campus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

When contacted for comment, Steele deferred to the union’s statement.

On its Facebook page, the union said it never guaranteed Steele’s participation. “We committed to [send] a participant from vote yes [sic]. She [King] was there and the mayor walked away. … The mayor chose to cancel the event instead of being engaged with the constituents he serves.”

Asked if he was aware that Steele never guaranteed his presence, Nirenberg said, “That is an absolute lie.”

O. Ricardo Pimentel, the editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News, stated in an email that the event’s sponsors canceled the discussion despite the willingness of King to participate because “the event deserved the panelists who originally agreed to appear.”

The proposed charter amendments – Propositions A, B, and C on the ballot – would (A) make it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote, (B) limit future city managers’ salaries and tenure, and (C) force binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new labor contract.

The fire union initiated the propositions earlier this year, gathering enough petition signatures to place the items on the ballot, and are largely thought to be connected to the nonexistent contract negotiations between the union and City. A 10-year evergreen clause keeps the terms of the old labor agreement in place until 2024 or until a new one is reached.

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The Go Vote No PAC, the mayor, many business leaders, and labor advocates say Prop A would allow special-interest groups to bombard City government with referenda and reverse Council decisions. Such policy uncertainty, they say, would threaten the City’s AAA bond rating and cost the city millions in increased interest payments.

After getting word of Steele’s withdrawal from the event, Nirenberg tweeted:

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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