Scott Ball / Rivard Report
San Antonio firefighters union President Chris Steele stood silent and stone-faced Thursday as journalists hurled questions at him about a recent leaked recording that captured him outlining the union's political plans behind the three propositions voters will see on the November ballot.
In the recording, Steele says they are aimed at securing a new contract by the end of the year and getting "our own guy," Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), into the mayor's seat. Before he was elected to City Council, Brockhouse worked as a political consultant for both the police and fire unions.
Instead of answering reporters' questions, Reinette King and David Van Os, spokespeople for the San Antonio First campaign, attempted to steer the press conference toward their willingness to inform the public and debate the issues ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Steele canceled his appearance at a "town hall" debate with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and others at UTSA Downtown Campus last month and sent King in his place. He claims he never promised his attendance, which organizers with UTSA and the San Antonio Express-News refuted. Steele declined to answer questions about a live debate slated for Wednesday night on KSAT 12.
"This is not about Chris Steele, this is about the citizens," King said. "I'm really sad that the mayor has made this about personalities. It's not about personalities. This is about issues that the citizens of San Antonio care very much about. If you believe that you have not been listened to ... then vote yes."
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association paid a petition consultant firm out of Buda $510,000 to collect most of the signatures required to get three City Charter changes on the ballot to (A) expand the scope of future ballot referenda and lower the threshold for signatures for them, (B) limit the tenure and pay of future city managers, and (C) force binding arbitration on labor contract negotiations between the City and union.
Steele has led every press conference since launching the San Antonio First initiative and hand-delivered the petitions with fellow union and consultant representatives to the city clerk in April.
"If the media feels that a debate is necessary for the citizens, they should probably allow the politicians to continue to do that. But what we offer is a talk about he facts, about the issues, and we will always send a representative to do that," Steele said.
When the press conference concluded, Steele was rushed out of a back door while journalists followed to ask more questions. Office staff blocked photographers and reporters from following them.
"Every time Mayor Ron Nirenberg opens his mouth about these issues, he hurls insults," said Van Os, a "lifelong Democrat" and attorney who represented the union in a 2005 lawsuit. "He demonizes this good man [Steele] ... who is working as hard as he can to represent the will of his members. And when he does that, he's demonizing all these good union members."
Nirenberg has called Steele a "fraud" and accused him of launching the petitions to satisfy his own want for power. The mayor has led rallies that focused on the fiscal and political impacts of Propositions A, B, and C and has emphasized that voting no is not a vote against firefighters. The City Charter amendments would lead to higher interest rates for municipal bonds that would decrease funds for critical infrastructure projects and increase taxes, he has said.
"This has always been a con job perpetrated by Chris Steele," said Christian Archer, campaign manager for the Go Vote No/Secure San Antonio's Future political action committee.
The con started when Steele paid an out-of-own consultant more than $500,000 to send people out to "pretend to be firefighters" and mislead citizens into signing the petitions, Archer said. "He's like the dog that caught the car. The election is right around the corner, and he's running from the propositions, running from the people, and now running from the press."
The Go Vote No campaign is not focusing its efforts on "demonizing" Steele, Archer said. "[It is about] educating voters about how devastating these [propositions] would be if they pass. But at the same time, there's a credibility question.
"There are business leaders and community leaders from across the city saying, 'Here are all the reasons why you should vote no.' When you turn around and ask why people should vote yes, Chris Steele fails," Archer said. "Why can't he answer that question?"
The propositions, Van Os and King said, are about giving the people of San Antonio a stronger voice at City Hall. But that seems to run counter to the 49-second recording Archer gave media outlets Wednesday. He says a firefighter recorded the full meeting and leaked it to the Go Vote No campaign.
"Now we have tapes," he said. "If Chris Steele wants to continue to hide, have no fear – there are firefighters willing to release tapes of him."
On Wednesday, Brockhouse called the unidentified firefighter a "coward" and said the audio clip was likely taken out of context.
Brockhouse's history as a paid consultant for the police and fire unions as well as his mayoral aspirations have been well known for years.
“We have seen an extreme lack of leadership in the Mayor’s office over the years,” a Wednesday statement from the fire union reads. “In Greg [Brockhouse], we see someone who listens to the people, someone who won’t be owned by the city manager and/or special interests.”