Nirenberg Calls Fire Union’s Amendment Petitions ‘Terrible’ for City

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele. Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against a petition drive being led by the City's firefighters union to amend the City charter in February.

City charter amendment efforts by San Antonio’s firefighters union pose a threat to the City’s governance and its ability to conduct business, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“This is terrible for the city,” said Nirenberg, speaking outside City Hall. “This is terrible for the public, so we’re working on [informing] the public about what a disaster they’ve planned.”

One of the three petitions being circulated by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association aims to cap any future city managers tenure to eight years and their salary to 10 times that of the lowest-paid city employee. Another would force the City and firefighters union to negotiate contracts through binding arbitration should other avenues fail. The third petition would change requirements for citizen-led referendums and give voters a say in passing specific ordinances such as public utility rate increases.

Three petitions went into circulation last week. Union officials are seeking petition signatures near early voting polling sites, Nirenberg said.

The move comes as negotiations for a new contract between the City and firefighters’ union remain at a standstill. The previous contract, which expired in 2014, is currently operating on its evergreen clause.

The petition regarding negotiations would give the union authority to declare an impasse and force the arbitration.

The City sued over the clause, and the Texas Supreme Court may take up the case after the City lost its district court case and appeal. Nirenberg said the City is available for negotiations.

The threat from the petitions, Nirenberg said, is that the changes to the city charter would negatively impact the City’s triple-A bond rating, secured and maintained under City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s tenure.

Sculley, who was paid $450,000 and received a $75,000 performance bonus for 2017, did not attend the press conference. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a frequent critic of Sculley’s compensation, also did not attend, but said he would have been there if not for a prior commitment as mayor pro-tem.

Brockhouse said Nirenberg’s remarks were “scare tactics.”

“It’s not like [firefighters union President] Chris Steele and the firefighters are getting signatures and it becomes law,” Brockhouse said. “The public has the final say and then we’ll see how the public feels about City Hall.”

Brockhouse said that he agrees the petition requirements are onerous and next to impossible to obtain. To conduct a referendum on certain ordinances, a petition must receive 75,000 signatures in 40 days. The union’s proposed change would expand the scope of ordinances subject to petition and reduce the requirement to 20,000 signatures over 180 days, the same standards currently required to amend the City’s charter.

He said the union will almost certainly get the signatures necessary to bring the proposed City charter amendment to a vote.

Standing behind Nirenberg at the press conference were Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Ana Sandoval (D7), and Clayton Perry (D10).

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Perez said the petition drive concerned business leaders.

“At this point we’re talking to our colleagues and other business groups around the city, and talking about developing a concurrent plan, but nothing has materialized as of yet,” he said at the press  conference.

Steele attended the press conference and stood in Nirenberg’s line of sight as he shot video of the press conference on his phone. At the end of Mayor’s remarks, Steele declined requests for comment.

7 thoughts on “Nirenberg Calls Fire Union’s Amendment Petitions ‘Terrible’ for City

  1. The proposals are simply an appeal to populism and a thinly disguised personal attack on Sculley. The problem with the petitions is that governing San Antonio then becomes a never-ending reactionary fight to the latest hot-button issue that someone spools up a petition about.

    How about the firefighters put out a petition that proposes their starting salaries be equal to the lowest paid city employee? And their benefits package be no better than that same lowest paid employee? And they pay the same rates for their healthcare as the non-first responders? That seems fair to me.

    Nirenberg, assuming he’s quoted correctly, is however, a buffoon. Hanging your hat on saying the proposals threaten the “AAA bond rating” is a non-starter in gaining public sympathy and countering the petitions. The bond rating has been abused by the spendthrift Council to increase spending rather than lower tax rates and carries little weight with the public at large.

    Brockhouse is effectively still a union shill. The anti-Sculley strategy as a union non-negotiating tactic is documented here, over two years ago in 2016:

    “…police union spokesman Greg Brockhouse said the numbers show Mayor Taylor’s standing in the community is strong and she is not central to the union efforts to focus attention on the city manager’s compensation package and her contract.

    “Mayor Taylor isn’t really the focus of the poll,” Brockhouse said. “We did want to research her standing in relation to the city manager’s standing. Our entire problem in this scenario is the city manager.”

    “The results show the police union believes a focus on Sculley and her contract is a more productive way to defend their contract demands rather than bargaining at the negotiating table… and surveys done by the City show taxpayers support her focus on the rich benefits package police and firefighters receive, including premium-free insurance coverage, low copays, and far fewer out-of-pocket expenses than their civilian counterparts.”

    The union refuses to even sit at the table and tries to do an end-run around the Collective Bargaining Agreement process by simply not bargaining. It’s childish and is only effective due to the 10-year evergreen clause. By the way, the contract expired in 2014. Four years, no negotiations, six more to go. Good job, union!

  2. The right to petition government for redress of grievances is protected in the US and Texas constitutions and the city charter of San Antonio.

    You have to agree with “Joe” — this response from Nirenberg is baffoonish. But that’s what the real estate boys demand.

    Does anyone recall a lil’ ol’ $3.4B unnecessary water project these collective baffoons are forcing SAWS ratepayers to pay for?

    Nirenberg and those on the Council deserve everything they’re about to get against their abuses of power. It’s a populist uprising in the making, alright.

  3. The city government needs to be strong enough to fight against vested interests, if the goal is to develop the city into a tier 1 city. It will be good if the Mayor can serve 4 years once elected with a 2-term limit instead of the 2-year/4-term limit currently in practice. The union needs to sit down and talk with the city. It is practices like these that leads to unions being demonized.

  4. It’s strange that unions pushed and corporations gave until the private corporations could not afford to do business in the US anymore causing massive numbers of union members to lose their jobs. Detroit was the perfect example of this. Now it seems that the place where unions are the most common are in the public sector, and they are pushing like they did before. All cities were quite generous back in the late 20th Century with union benefits for union-organized divisions, and today all cities are facing problems with budgets because of it. San Antonio is just one of many of those. The city was too generous with both the police union and the firemen’s union. Yet the unions are still pushing even though the costs of those two services take up far too much of the city’s budget. It will be interesting to see how it plays out eventually. The worst-case scenarios are that cities will eventually privatize police and fire services or they will try doing what Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers. Either way, one reason for it will be the result of unions pushing too far making the costs unsustainable. So many of those industrial jobs that people lost to other countries years ago were lost by a combination of labor costs being lower overseas AND by unions having pushed too far. After a year in office, Trump hasn’t brought them back because such high costs for labor just can’t be met. Any jobs coming back will be mainly through robotics until artificial intelligence improves to the point that robots have unions that are pushing too hard!

    • Police and fire fighters have a protected status in Texas law under Chapter 174 regarding collective bargaining.

      Maybe it’s time for a fourth petition to get added to the mix:

      Sec. 174.053. REPEAL ELECTION. (a) The governing body of a political subdivision in which the collective bargaining provisions of this chapter have been in effect for at least one year shall order an election for the repeal of the adoption of this chapter on receiving a petition signed by qualified voters of the political subdivision in a number equal to or greater than the lesser of:
      (1) 20,000; or
      (2) five percent of the number of qualified voters voting in the political subdivision in the preceding general election for state and county officers.
      (b) The ballot in the election shall be printed to provide for voting for or against the proposition: “Repeal of the adoption of the state law applicable to (fire fighters, police officers, or both, as applicable) that establishes collective bargaining if a majority of the affected employees favor representation by an employees association, preserves the prohibition against strikes and lockouts, and provides penalties for strikes and lockouts.”

      Sec. 174.054. EFFECT OF SUCCESSFUL REPEAL ELECTION. If a majority of the votes cast in an election under Section 174.053 favor repeal of the adoption of this chapter, the collective bargaining provisions of this chapter are void as to the political subdivision.

      Sec. 174.055. FREQUENCY OF ELECTIONS. If an election for the adoption or the repeal of the adoption of this chapter is held under this subchapter, a like petition for a subsequent election may not be submitted before the first anniversary of the date of the preceding election.

      A group of anti-union voters could force the firefighters to defend their collective bargaining rights every single year simply by circulating a petition and getting 20,000 signatures. Does that sound like a good idea? There are an awful lot of unintended consequences there, but if the Union is not even negotiating it doesn’t sound like they actually value the CBA process very much.

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