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Members and allies of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association are circulating three petitions in hopes of changing the city charter as part of a “San Antonio First” campaign launched Tuesday.
Those petitions aim to limit City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s salary and tenure, force contract negotiations, and make it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances to a public vote by requiring less signatures and allowing petitioners more time to collect them.
“San Antonians have expressed our city managers [sic] pay is out of touch with our working population,” Fire Union President Chris Steele stated in a news release. The first petition calls for capping the city manager’s pay at 10 times the lowest-paid, full-time city employee’s salary; a term limit of eight years; and a supermajority vote required by City Council to approve employment contracts.
“We think voters should have the choice to continue the status quo or set realistic limits,” Steele stated.
Sculley’s base salary in 2017 was $450,000 and she received a $75,000 bonus for her performance, $6,000 vehicle allowance, and $840 communications allowance for a total of $531,840.
The city manager oversees more than 12,000 city employees and acts as chief executive officer of the City, which has an annual budget of $2.7 billion. During her 12-year tenure, Sculley has led efforts to improve internal and external operations while earning the top bond-rating score, saving the City millions.
“This is more gamesmanship from a fire union that refuses to negotiate a contract that expired more than three years ago,” Sculley said in a City news release. “The only way to give firefighters the compensation they deserve is for the union to come to the table and bargain in good faith.”
Steele has been president of the fire union for nearly 15 years, the City’s rebuttal notes.
The City has extended at least eight formal invitations to the fire union over the past four years, before and after it filed a lawsuit in 2014 challenging the contract’s existing “evergreen” clause, but the fire union has never accepted. Court-ordered mediation efforts were unsuccessful, and the Texas Supreme Court is considering taking up the appealed lawsuit. In its second petition, the fire union is now asking for binding arbitration by a “neutral third party.”
“Making city government transparent and accountable has been a signature issue of mine since I was first elected to City Council,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg stated in a separate email. “It’s no secret the fire union bosses don’t like the City Manager, and it’s no secret that I support the great work she does. I don’t agree with hamstringing our ability to attract top managerial talent to San Antonio with the arbitrary strings the union bosses want to attach.”
To download statements from the fire union, City, and Nirenberg, click here.
After a contentious collective-bargaining process that lasted more than two years, City Council in September 2016 approved a new contract with the police featuring an eight-year evergreen clause. The City then dropped its lawsuit against the previous contract’s clause.
“As for arbitration, I have extended an open invitation to the fire union bosses to come to the negotiating table, but they have so far refused, preferring to make political hay at the expense of real progress,” Nirenberg stated.
The third petition would extend the time frame allowed for a referendum and reduce the number of signatures required to add it to a municipal ballot.
Currently, if citizens wanted to change the city charter, they would have to submit a petition with 20,000 resident signatures within a 180-day period for it to go to voters on a citywide referendum. An ordinance change would require 75,000 signatures in 40 days.
The union’s proposal is to match the ordinance rules to the charter rules. While state law determines the number of signatures required for a charter amendment, the city charter mandates the number of signatures for an ordinance change.
“The deck is stacked against citizens who want to change city ordinances,” George Rodriguez, former president of the San Antonio Tea Party, stated in the union’s release. “Why should voters be forced to gather nearly 4 times as many signatures in a fourth of the time then what state law requires to change the Charter? City ordinance or Charter, the rules should be the same.”
It is unclear if such a change would be legal, according to a City spokesperson, or what kind of impact such a change would have on how the City functions. But it could greatly increase the amount of issues voters would have to consider – creating an environment where ordinances volley back and forth.
Most firefighters would not be able to vote on such referendums, the City news release states, as 40 percent of them “actually live in the City of San Antonio.”