Let City Voters, Not Special Interests, Decide Local Elections

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Robin Black (left) speaks with retired fire department Lt. Bert Kuykendall about charters petitions in February 2018.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robin Black speaks with retired fire Lt. Bert Kuykendall about the fire union's charter petition drive in February 2018.

People of all political persuasions can agree that local election outcomes are best left in the hands of local voters rather than special interests whose involvement can only be accurately measured after it is too late to matter.

Such is the case in both the City and San Antonio ISD school board elections.

Outside forces, including the firefighters and police unions and a national teachers union, are doing everything they can to bend the May 4 election outcomes to their benefit. While most who vote do so as an act of civic engagement, for the unions, it’s all about electing candidates who will do their bidding, regardless of its impact on taxpayers or the school district.

Early voting resumes Monday and ends at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

A lack of reliable polling – and who trusts polls these days? – means most of us are guessing about the election outcomes at this juncture. My gut tells me that City of San Antonio voters and SAISD voters will support incumbents over challengers and choose the best candidate where there are open seats. Yet passage of two of the three charter amendments on the ballot last November serves as a warning signal that voters can be swayed by negative and misleading campaigning. The charter amendments were the handiwork of outside consultants and the firefighters union, playing off  the populist, anti-status-quo streak running through electoral politics locally and nationally.

Perhaps only one in 10 registered voters will turn out for local elections. Stay home this election at your own risk. Complacency could leave you saddled with unimagined outcomes.

The result of those two approved charter amendments, at least to date, is that longtime City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced her retirement and City Council hired her deputy, Erik Walsh, for about the same salary that departing Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni will earn as the new city manager in Corpus Christi.

San Antonio has a population about five times the size of Corpus Christi, and while Zanoni undoubtedly will see his $300,000 salary climb as he puts his considerable talents to work on the Texas Gulf Coast, Walsh’s pay will stagnate and be based on a multiple of what the City’s lowest wage earners are paid rather than his job performance.

The other result from the two passed charter amendments is that fire union negotiators have only pretended to bargain in good faith with City negotiators while the union leadership pursues its strategy of defeating incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg and replacing him with City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), formerly the union’s paid consultant and the only Council member to support the union’s charter amendments.

Duping people into signing petitions is a lousy way to govern the city, especially when the people behind the initiative do not even live and vote in San Antonio. That brings me back to the initial point of this column: local control.

While almost every early polling site features a firefighter working – some would say badgering – to influence arriving voters, chances are that firefighter lives elsewhere and is not eligible to vote in the mayor’s race. A total of 62 percent, or 1,100 of the city’s 1,773 firefighters, live in other municipalities. As a San Antonio voter, you cannot influence the election in, for example, Converse, home to union President Chris Steele, so why should he and his nonresident allies be able to influence elections in your city?

Public safety unions from around the country are helping the local union campaign against Nirenberg and against incumbent SAISD board President Patti Radle. One attendee at a recent Teach for America-sponsored SAISD candidate forum introduced himself as a retired firefighter from Philadelphia who had traveled here to help work the elections.

As the San Antonio Express-News reported last week, the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation of Teachers Solidarity Fund is distributing mailers in SAISD neighborhoods that lead residents to believe election union candidates will reduce State-mandated testing in the classroom. Control of testing lies with the Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency at the State level. It’s hard to see the mailers as anything other than deliberately and cynically misleading.

Meanwhile, the firefighter and police unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on City elections, although a full accounting will not become available until well after the elections are settled, and even then, we might never know how much outside money flowed into the local unions. Social media smear campaigns and attacks also continue; witness the Instagram advertising posted by the police union I came across last week that we have republished here.

A negative campaign against Mayor Ron Nirenberg paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association is making rounds on social networks.

Courtesy / Instagram

A negative campaign against Mayor Ron Nirenberg paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association is making rounds on social networks.

Something else that might surprise you, especially if you support the union because you believe firefighters deserve better in San Antonio: Many people believe that San Antonio is a uniformly low-wage city, but its public safety public employees are among the highest-paid in the state when comparing pay versus cost of living.

The average San Antonio firefighter earned $97,006.35 in fiscal year 2018, with the median pay at $92,265.67, according to the City’s latest figures, which include all payroll earnings. Subtract the probationary firefighters from the equation and average compensation reaches into the low six figures. Now consider that the unions members and their dependents never have to worry about a copay for a physician visit or pharmacy prescription. A career firefighter can expect to earn a rich pension upon retirement. And union members still have a taxpayer-funded legal slush fund that covers personal travails, like divorces and DWIs.

How many other working class families in San Antonio can point to that kind of annual income, benefits package, and job security?

San Antonio taxpayers have always treated public safety workers with respect and afforded them excellent compensation. Pension and benefits costs, however, have skyrocketed beyond the City’s ability to maintain the status quo. The unions, however, have dug in. Compromise, we have learned, is not a word in the union vocabulary.

Registered voters, of course, are free to exercise their rights and civic duty and turn out at a higher rate than the predicted 10-13 percent and regain control of local elections for City and school board officials, or they can stay home and allow outside forces to influence the elections for their own selfish enrichment.

46 thoughts on “Let City Voters, Not Special Interests, Decide Local Elections

  1. Thank you for being right on the mark about these outsiders trying to influence the election. Why do they get a free right My wife was a nurse and yet we paid our copays and she never made the salaries these guys make if they don’t want to negotiate in good and fairness than fire them all especially the ones who don’t live in the city

  2. Thanks for your candor. You are absolutely in point. I did not not know how well our firefighters are compensated.

  3. Since retroactive pay will kick in once a contract is settled, Union delay tactics means money in the bank for their members regardless who is elected Mayor. Each member will receive a significant lump sum after its all said and done. Support of first responders has historically been strong in SA, and the unions rely on that fact to have citizens blindly sign petitions, thinking they are in their own small way, altruistically, feel-good, supporting a good thing.

  4. Another hit piece. Don’t believe everything you read. Read the contract, you’ll see they don’t make low six figures.

    • If you read the contract have a calculator handy, because there is extra pay for education, overtime pay for working extra shifts when someone calls in sick, special team pay, clothing allowance… I guess you get the picture.

      • Charlie, I am a San Antonio firefighter and I assure you I am not making that much. Not even close.

        In regards to overtime, when you work overtime do you work for free? What did you expect?

        I’d be more than happy to show you my paycheck and prove it.

        • As a salary employee I don’t get OT pay. Your pay depends on your rank, so you may be in the lower part of the average.

          • Then why are you trying to make it sound like it’s bad we get paid more for overtime?

          • All for OT pay. Just saying that it’s part of the calculation of average income of uniformed fire personnel.

  5. “Bunch of outside agitators!” Let’s tar and feather them! Rivard you sound like like the old time vigilantes that hated union organizers.
    Yet Rivard makes no mention of outside corporations that have.
    easily bought off local politicians thus “interfering” with OUR lives locally!
    I am a retired union man and my support goes to SAISD teachers and San Antonio firefighters!

    • Stop trying to convince people that unions are the same. Pairing the SAFD and SAISD unions together as if they stand for the same thing is completely inaccurate.

      Teachers are fighting for basic grants of money to ensure they have materials for themseleves and their students.

      SAFD is desperate to convince the SA electorate their prior contract is fair, it is not. What’s more, it is full of self dealing, and SAFD Piggybacked on the strong arm tactics of the former SAPD union president (non a convicted felon) in order to achieve this unfair deal. Remember SAPD renegotiated their unfair contract bc it expired first, SAFD didn’t. What they did instead is engage in a campaign to act like this is a David and Goliath situation and it is, only the SAFD Union is Goliath and the citizens of SA are David.

      Unions can be wonderful and pool power to ensure fairness; however, this isn’t about what’s fair for the SAFD. This is about a group throwing a tantrum bc they want something no other fire department has. I’ve spoken to my military friends and they jokingly lament the fact that being a fire fighter here is more lucrative than a full career in the military.

      SAISD teachers want/need basic necessities, reimbursement for the money they’ve spent educating students, if you support them supporting the SAFD position is ironic in that it could very likely take more money away from those already struggling ready in their classrooms.

  6. Outsiders “bending” elections?. When I first read the headline, I thought you were going to talk about the Chamber of Commerce (Hispanic and other), developers, power brokers in incorporated cities, etc. A spark of hope, but then…NO.

    Alas, sigh. Rivard, I will give you this: You are transparent!

  7. Thank you Pancho Valdez, for supporting local unions, associations, and other local citizen groups. Although these small organizations can overstep their influence, they are vital for combating the lobby money of real outside interests , such as large corporations and large organizations.

    I also support the SAISD teachers and fire firefighters.

  8. I agree with Pancho Valdez. SAISD teachers and fire fighters associations are not outside agitators.

    These groups and other local groups are vital for combating the influence of lobby money of real outside groups such as large corporations, developers, and large national associations.

    These local groups can help increase the local voter turnout, which is highly needed.

  9. How many other working class families run into a burning home/business to save lives???
    Nice to know Sculley has CONTROL over you & the “Rivard Report”
    Goodbye RR, removing you from my inbox!!!!!!!!!!

    • Sofia, lets not get so dramatic about the profession. I understand they put their lives on the line when they go into a burning building, but how many actually fight fires or saved lives. I think our society has gone overboard with the first responder stuff. Yes, I appreciate what they do, but lets be realistic about the risks most firefighters encounter.

  10. “Duping people into signing petitions is a lousy way to govern the city, especially when the people behind the initiative do not even live and vote in San Antonio.”

    Agreed! Mandating paid sick leave was obviously wrong.

    • The petition on Paid Sick Leave was done by Texas Organizing Project which has an office at S Zarzamora in SA. While the petition for Prop B/C had individuals who were leading the people they were soliciting believe they were SA residents/ firefighters in order to secure signatures. They were Texas Petition Strategies from Buda.
      So back to your twisting of the truth duping people is a lousy way to government the city.

  11. “Duping people into signing petitions is a lousy way to govern the city, especially when the people behind the initiative do not even live and vote in San Antonio.”

    Ahem Paid sick leave.

      • (not an argument for or against, just looking for clarification)
        I thought the only reason the City Council voted on the paid sick leave ordinance was because a petition drive had secured enough signatures to place it on a ballot. The city had a choice to either vote to enact it or place it on the same ballot as the other “A,B,C” propositions, making for a difficult PR campaign.

  12. city of san antonio elections this cycle is looking to have approx. 10% of the eligible voters participating…..seems to me we have a problem of apathy of voters more than a problem of special interests. labors unions and any other group of citizens has the freedom to support any candidate the believe supports their interest….that is the democratic republicanism form of government at work….what is the primary concern and question that needs further investigation, is why is only 10% of electorate participating???????

  13. Bob, surely all the above does not really surprise you does it? You live in America and this is how Americans operate. It is just this time you do not like the goals of those who are being successful at influencing the easily swayed (ill informed) American votes. USA, USA, USA

  14. “My gut tells me that City of San Antonio voters and SAISD voters will support incumbents over challengers…”

    Is this the same gut that failed to predict the success of Props B and C? Time to visit a gastroenterologist, Rivard.

    • Violeta, Your snark aside, I never predicted the propositions would not pass, so it is misleading of you to suggest I failed to predict the outcome. Most political observers knew that Prop B was certain to pass, for example.

  15. This is probably besides the point of this discussion, but people especially Hispanics (I am one) ditch big business and corporations. While there are many “evils” that can be attributed to big business, people always talk about the need for higher paying jobs here, so guess what….who’s going to provide those jobs? Fortune 500 companies, big business, the people minorities love to condemn. Maybe minimum wage jobs is the satisfactory norm for this city.

  16. This is double standard reporting. To say San Antonio is ‘uniformly a low wage city’ and then cite inflated firefighter wages..yet you were the first one to justify Sheryl Sculley and her rich compensation package, is flipping your stance to meet your personal agenda (which is to be viewed as relevant by those in power). I’d go as far as saying Rivard is attempting to create his own special interest group through his own media outlet. And to say firefighters and their dependents do not make copays is grossly false. It’s one thing to slant the truth, but it’s another to flat out lie. Sounds like a fake news tactic picked up from Trump.

  17. I don’t think Robert Rivard really has the best track record on predicting city race outcomes. If he thinks that the incumbents are all safe, then expect two or three of them to be evicted.

  18. I’m voting for Ron.We have too many firefighters for the rare fires that occur in our city.I sure do not want to pay people that do not live in San Antonio.Way overpaid.Privatize fire fighting.

  19. Wait, the teachers are the enemy, but the outsiders who prop up the SAISD superintendent are fine (Broad Foundation, Walton Foundation, DeVos Foundation, et al)? And you’re okay with outsiders running one-fourth of the schools in SAISD? The teachers union is made up of teachers who work in classrooms with our kids every day. Think I’ll support them over the SAISD superintendent who has never taught a day in his life.

    • The teachers are not the enemy, but neither is the school board looking to maintain SAISD’s relevance in today’s world of education.

      THIS parent appreciates the options that the district has given my kids (who are currently in SAISD schools). I wish the teachers’ union would concentrate on effecting change at the state level vs. trying to preserve the old “neighborhood school” model that just doesn’t really exist anymore… and isn’t coming back.

  20. The only reason for Unions to exist is for special interest groups to steal money from the people. The Unions should be outlawed for the public good.

  21. Do citizens of SA feel safer because a fire employee’s family gets braces? or we pay for his divorce proceedings AND his/her spouse fees as well? REALLY??…this makes us feel safer and warrants handing over control to the unions? Do other SA families experience the same health care coverage themselves?

  22. This idea that we are “duped” by someone because I disagree with your point is demeaning. My opinion is as valid as yours.
    I’ve seen our City go downhill for a long time and now we are at a point that it is unaffordable for lower income people to live downtown thanks to Sculley, council and other movers and shakers. We need to take care of basics of running the City.
    As to the firefighters intimidating voters, I think that is a low blow. They have a right to express their opinion and we have the right to walk away.
    Also lets see what you think of them when your home is burning and they rush in to save your family! I don’t think your buddy Ron would do that.
    One last point about City Manager pay, the applicants know the salary going in and we seem to have gotten a good choice with Walsh.

  23. Rivard talks about unions taking over? Why was the no mention of how this current DA was elected with a million dollars pumped into his campaign! Apparently that’s sits well with Rivard because he never mentions that! Like I said this is just another liberal rag that is only showing one side and not the other. What a shame

    • This isn’t about unions, this is about a particular trying to recreate Tammany Hall with Steele as a modern day Boss Tweed.

  24. 1) Firefighter and police officers who serve in San Antonio are not ‘outside forces’.
    2) Most working people don’t have jobs that should include ‘hazard pay’. Police officers and firefighters deserve hazard pay. Comparing their pay to pay of regular working folks is comparing apples to oranges.
    3) I, like most people, don’t follow local politics as closely as you and other journalists. Don’t know how true the Nirenberg ad is. However, if the content of the ad is true, is it really a ‘smear campaign’?
    3) Like Nirenberg much?

  25. The local taxpayer is up against a wall.Higher taxes don’t leave us much to give firefighters a raise.City and County have got to start cutting just like us the taxpayer.I have no sympathy for any fire fighter.

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