Nirenberg: Community Faces ‘Election Like No Other’

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses attendees at the Go Vote Note rally on Saturday morning.

Secure San Antonio's Future (SSAF), a political action committee formed to raise funds and campaign against three charter amendments on the local November ballot, hosted its official kick-off party Saturday morning at La Villita with City, County, and State elected officials and business leaders.

Amid the more than 250 attendees at the event to throw support behind the "Go Vote No" campaign were some former City Council members and most of the current members.

"We can't win this without you. This is an election like no other," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. "Lord knows we did not want to have to fight this fight. But Lord knows we will."

The charter amendments, as proposed by the firefighters union, would:

    • (Prop A) expand the issues voters could petition to vote on in the future and make it easier to do so;
    • (Prop B) limit the tenure and drastically cap the salary of future city managers and;
    • (Prop C) force the city into binding arbitration with the union over a new labor contract.

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"This is not by any means a political challenge," San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera told the crowd. "This is a community challenge."

CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Jenna Saucedo-Herrera

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Jenna Saucedo-Herrera

The union's "San Antonio First" political action committee claims the charter amendments will save taxpayer money and give citizens a voice in local government. That's a relatively simple argument compared to the one SSAF has to make. City leaders have said the changes would impede the city's ability to function efficiently and result in increased property taxes and fewer city services.

"Spread the word," said Gordon Hartman, a developer, philanthropist, and owner of Morgan's Wonderland. Hartman also is the treasurer for SSAF. "Talk to everyone you know."

Prop A, regarding referendums and petitions, would decrease the number of signatures required to put an issue to vote from 75,000 to 20,000 and allow for more time to collect those signatures. That means instead of about 10 percent of the population, it would take only 3 precent to call for a vote, Saucedo-Herrera said. Special interests "should not make decisions for our entire community."

Wayne Peacock, president of USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Group, said that San Antonio's current trajectory toward more jobs and economic prosperity would be at risk if every City Council decision was "at the mercy of a few thousand signatures."

While USAA employees nearly 20,000 people in San Antonio, Hartman said, it would also impact small business owners. Tony Gradney, owner of Tony G's Soul Food on the East Side, testified to that.

The East Side has seen great progress and investment over the years thanks to the City and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, but Gradney said, there would be "less money resources pledged for my neighborhood" if these propositions pass.

Tony Bradley owner of Tony G's Soul Food

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Tony Bradley owner of Tony G's Soul Food

By creating economic and legislative uncertainty – and likely tarnishing the City's gold-star credit rating – the amendments could cost the City between $382.3 million and $4.2 billion over 20 years, according to a City-commissioned report.

The union denies the initiatives will have a negative impact on the City's budget or ability to issue large bond packages.

“So my response is, and everyone can identify with this, our taxes go up every year now,” Steele said Wednesday. “What is the difference? So what this does, though, is it allows the people a voice to stop that from happening."

The City has not increased its tax rate for 26 years, but has reduced it seven times. Tax bills are more influenced by public school district taxes, which make up 48 percent. The City takes about 22 percent.

Tax bills typically increase because of climbing property values or school district rate increases.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Tax bills typically increase because of climbing property values or school district rate increases.

In addition to adding financial stress, Hartman said, the amendment would "pit communities against one another" because special interests would easily be able to repeal funding and policy decisions that hurt or help their group. That goes for different sides of town, too, he said.

"What happens when a westside neighborhood finally gets the money for a much-need park or a new crosswalk or a police substation?" Hartman said. "Then a few people maybe on the other side of town decide they would rather have that money spent in their neighborhood? What do they do? They go out and get 20,000 signatures and they have six months to do it."

Treasurer Gordon Hartman

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Local businessman and treasurer of SSAF, Gordon Hartman

SSAF and the City are currently embroiled in two different lawsuits with the union. The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is suing the City in federal court for allegedly violating its First Amendment rights as union members and third-party consultants solicited signatures for the petitions associated with the ballot items. SSAF is suing the union for using $510,000 in union dues to pay for that petition consultant. A hearing on the union's request to dismiss that case is scheduled for Monday.

"After however long it is I get to be mayor of this city, I still get to be your neighbor," Nirenberg said. "But all that is under attack. And that's why I'm a little upset. This is our city. Don't let anyone take it away from you."

36 thoughts on “Nirenberg: Community Faces ‘Election Like No Other’

  1. This sounds very much like the ballot “initiative” or “proposition” process that has been in place in California for many years and has allowed almost any wacky idea to make its way onto the ballot. Unfortunately, good ideas & good intentions often lead to the mess everyone is witnessing in CA. (I’m a native Los Angeleno speaking from 1st hand experience, and have lived here in SA for 9 years now. ) It happens slowly, almost without noticing until it’s too late to fix it. Is that a risk San Antonio is willing to take? Please take this issue seriously.

    • Also, the firemen’s union that has proposed all of these is cloaking them as good for the general public whereas their real reason is because they are only mad and concerned about themselves–wanting to grab more of the city pie for themselves. I see it going further, though. I lived in Corpus Christi and have seen how a city can start to dry up–becoming unattractive with infrastructure starting to fall apart because of obstructionism by politically active older citizens who do not want to pay for anything. Passing these initiatives will allow small groups of people to stop spending on anything they object to while at the same time it will allow firemen to force their portion of the city budget to become bigger and bigger through mandated payments via a union contract.

  2. This “California” argument is as tired as it is unfounded. Texans have the right to gather “20,000” signatures for over 30 years and it has only been exercised 3 times within Bexar County; including this time. The city or county hasn’t devolved into California or even tanked economically. Why are the people like Hartman, or USAA giving $50,000 and $100,000 respectively to stop us from voting on how tax dollars are spent? Because then we could vote on the corporate welfare they have received. Gordon got $18 million for his “soccer/ sports complex” even though it was valued then at $13 million and USAA got millions in tax breaks to move back downtown after Cisneros spent millions setting them up at their I10 complex 40 years ago. Where’s the outrage or article pointing out “why” these guys are against it?

    • California argument is most definitely founded. Their “direct democracy” efforts where people thought they were helping themselves by lowering property taxes led to an economic crisis.
      What you’re saying about 20,000 signatures makes no sense – this proposition is on the ballot to open up financial decisions to a small minority of people not qualified to make those decisions. Acting like this is already an option for us is unfounded and deceiving.
      As one of the biggest local employers in SA, USAA is concerned about the damage these props will do to the city – like throwing away tens of millions of dollars instead of investing them.
      If you ignore the baseless populist talking points, it’s a no-brainer.

      • You obviously haven’t followed this issue as the Council is being forced to have this election precisely because of our state constition. Once the clerk certified the signatures as valid. It forced the election. The only thing a “yes vote” will change is the City Charter would then be in step with the state constition. As for the “millions to be thrown away” like Joe said the Sheriff’s Union voted and passed collective bargaining and then Council was scared by the mere collection of 20k signatures against streetcar and the “sky didn’t fall” and “tax payers millions” have not disappeared unless you count the millions not spent enriching 4 developers on Broadway.

        • I see your point, but I think it makes more sense to have the threshold for ordinances higher than the minimum for charter amendments. San Antonio is a huge city, and it’s only going to keep growing, so the 20,000 threshold doesn’t make as much sense as it does for smaller cities. Not to mention, things like referenda on city ordinances are exactly the kind of issues that most voters are usually uninformed (or willfully misinformed by special interest groups) about. I think it makes structural sense to have a higher threshold – in practice, all that means is that you have to show a greater likelihood that the referenda will actually pass before you can get it on the ballot. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask. In the meantime, keep voting out representatives you don’t think are doing a good job. You can always do that.

  3. If it’s good enough for our Texas Constitution, then why not San Antonio?

    Btw, would love to know why people were kicked out of this event for their clothes, and who funded this.

  4. I don’t see how the electorate could be any whackier than the City Council. As for the writer who claims to be fro Los Angeles. I say he’s a faker. It’s Angeleno, not Los Angeleno. More referenda!!

  5. Just like I dont buy nike products and dont shop at target, I wont buy a gordon hartman home or give charitable contributions to his Morgan’s wonderland, and am moving my USAA account. One in a million, I know, but others will follow!

      • Who is “we”?

        Anna has a right to her opinions and where she spends her money. Even if you don’t like them, or you don’t agree. Even if it makes you mad.

        Oh, and if her opinions happen to be different than yours or she chooses to spend her money based upon those opinions then she doesn’t qualify to live in your vicinity? How arrogant and intolerant can you get?

        I don’t care if hers, or your opinions differ from mine but we all still have a right to them. She has a right to express what she pleases, speak her mind, and should be able to do so without having to worry about being bullied for it.

        You speak to people like that to their face? Or just behind a keyboard?

        • To their face.

          And “We” are the people who care about San Antonio and its future.

          That’s why I was at that rally Saturday morning, and what the speakers were saying is the absolute truth. Those charter amendments will RUIN this City. And they are NOT about the firefighters (there is nothing concerning them in the amendments), or about power to the people, they are about a power grab and vendetta by a corrupt Union thug named Chris Steele.

          • You Carl J, apparently know nothing about the inner workings on how this City is truly run. Try getting involved more than jlst showing up for a protest! This is much more than just the firefighters vs. City. It is about stopping corruption. I do not necessarily believe the fire union should be leading the fight, but someone has to end this corrupt path, and it is much deeper than just an evergreen clause. (Do you even know about that?)Try spending a year or two at each and every city council meeting and your song just might be different. Do you know who your council person? Let me guess, it isn’t Brockhouse or Perry.

          • Voting for a referendum is the closest you can get to “power to the people”.

            I don’t think you should just vote people in, and then just hope they fulfill a campaign promise…you should be able to weigh in as a citizen in the form of a referendum if you don’t agree with what they’re doing while actively serving their role…actually affect change…way more effective than rallying and protesting.

            I see that you can’t understand that both sides could “care about San Antonio and its future”. You seem to think that only your side cares about the future and therefore it’s okay to get nasty to the “others” with different opinions.

            If you really cared about the future of this city or this country, you’ll let people have their voice without harassing them. You won’t try to bully them out of town like you own the town any more than they do. You need to be willing to listen to others, recognize that their are two sides to every argument, and that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. If you really care about power to the people you won’t bash the very people you claim to be fighting for.

            Believe me, if you talk to enough people like that to their face or behind a keyboard, you won’t find many people standing around you when the dust has settled and the die is cast. We are a species that relies on communication and cooperation to survive. This violent nasty attitude will not bring us together in the end but only lead to further division.

          • @Richard McFarland – I agree with a lot of these points, but I think the issue is not whether referenda are a powerful tool for letting people directly decide issues – instead, it’s what threshold we should establish for a referenda to happen. In a city of a million+ people, I don’t think 70,000 signatures is too much to ask. There should be a real (but not insurmountable) hurdle to overruling elected representatives, and I don’t think the current hurdle is too high.

  6. Bob T. – it is not 70,000 signatures, this amendment would allow only 20,000 signatures. 3% of the registered voters in this City could dictate how things get done. Not good.
    And Cesily – believe me I know exactly how this City is run, unlike obvious conspiracy theorists like you. Please provide examples of the so-called “corruption” you speak of. This should be entertaining.

    • We agree, Carl – the current threshold for getting a referendum on the ballot is 70k (10% of registered voters). That’s a much better number than 20k.

    • I have, but RR deletes my comments!!! Corruption= commingling of funds for starters!! Expound on how you know exactly how this city is run??

    • 3 percent to call for a vote, not make decisions for the community, it is about allowing the community to vote on a concern. When the public votes on something, they are deciding and that sound great to me! I think there is nothing wrong with 3 percent of the people bringing forth an issue that needs the consent of all of San Antonio!

  7. Gosh, I can not understand for the life of me why I shouldn’t want to vote YES to at least 2 of these amendments. I was horrified to see the salary and bonus of the SA city manager when I first moved here. AND then there is her bonus!!! AGREE it needs to be controlled. Same with voting on issues. Maybe the Alamo fiasco would haven’t been so out of control if the taxpayers who actually CARE could have voted. No need to protest if you lose in a vote.
    My biggest concern and I am in no way against them, but why is big business so worried about these issues? What is in it for them? When politicians and big business put their heads together to determine who can say what, I do get a bit nervous. Don’t we get enough of this on the federal level?

    • Joleen,

      The biggest issue is that our perfect bond-rating is in jeopardy, the City has even been told that by the major rating agencies. That means if we float another bond, we will pay more in interest and have less money to do the projects in the bond. And you will pay more in taxes to make up the shortfall.

      And as for the City Manager’s salary – she is the CEO/COO of a $1.2 Billion corporation with over 14,000 employees.

        • Joleen, As usual you are missing the point. This IS a city of communities, but it is a BIG city. It is 1.7 million people with another million in 20 years. Don’t bury your head in the sand. YOU are the one that brought up the City Manager’s salary, and my point is that she is running a $1.2 corporationwith 14,000+ employees. She is the best in the Country and worth every penny we pay her. San Antonio enjoys the highest bond rating of any city in the Country. ANY city, and it is due primarily to the Manager’s fiscal management.

          • The CM’s fiscal management lead to this police/fire union fiasco because she forgot about the evergreen clause expiration until it was too late and the contract auto-renewed with the continuation of the evergreen clause. That not fiscally responsible and has cost the taxpayers mega $$ in legal fees.

  8. carl j, AAA bond rating means nothing in this City. People will still buy the bonds because of its strong real estate economy and continued growth of this City. This City is so covered in revenue from all the special assessments it takes in, i.e. parking rates, permit fees, code lien fees, and now bicycle rental fees, to cover the cost of the new fat sidewalks that has deleted all the street metered parking! The city even charges its own employees hiked rates to park in a city owned lot! The thing that will kill AAA rating is all the excess spending by CM and CC salaries and fluff incentives to turn downtown SA into NYC! Candidates stood in line to be elected to CC before we began paying them a salary. But of course, you should know all this since you know exactly how the city is run.

  9. You might study the budget. The CM salary is a drop in the budget. 60 pc goes to the PD and FD. And, btw, selling bonds is not at issue, rather the higher interest if the rating is lost.

  10. 60pc goes to PD and FD because CM forgot to renew contract without removing evergreen clause when chance was available. CM should be held responsible for the ludicrous cost in legal fees fighting this issue. Agree 60pc should definitely not include free health care for all PD family members, and thank goodness that was negotiated out. Higher interest to pay back bonds equates to a higner yield for the investor buying them, and no huge worry in case of default, they are insured. So, if SA lost to AA rating, it would not kill us.

  11. 3% dictating how the city does business? You mean force a vote to allow citizens to have a say in whether city council can just do whatever they want vs the opinions and wishes of their constituents. Can you say Alamo Plaza?

  12. According to the article, “instead of about 10 percent of the population, it would take only 3 precent to call for a vote, Saucedo-Herrera said. Special interests “should not make decisions for our entire community.” However, Saucedo-Herrera does not make sense. This is not about Special interest making decisions for the community, it is about allowing the community to vote on a concern. When the public votes on something, they are deciding and that sound great to me! I think there is nothing wrong with 3 percent of the people bringing forth an issue that needs the consent of all of San Antonio!

  13. I’m voting for Prop A and against Props B and C.

    It’s not all or nothing and doesn’t have to be, but I like the idea of voters maintaining their right to a direct say, even if the issue to vote on is “wacky”; otherwise, our wacky elected officials claim that they represent me–even if I didn’t vote for ’em.

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