San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.
San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall on April 11, 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio City Clerk Leticia Vacek is expected to verify next Thursday that there are at least 20,000 valid signatures for each of the three petitions the fire union submitted one month ago.

That means, barring any legal challenges, voters could decide in November if the City’s charter, or constitution, should include language that limits future city managers’ salaries and tenure, forces arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract, and makes it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances to a public vote – ultimately overriding City Council decisions.

The union’s so-called “San Antonio First” campaign says it’s all about giving voters a stronger voice. City officials and other leaders have called the measures “terrible” and said it could turn the City into a “referendum state” unable to attract and retain talented city managers.

In response to the clerk’s announcement, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said other, separate charter changes that the Charter Review Commission was considering – including new term limits for Council, an independent Ethics Review Board, and others –  would not appear on the same ballot.

“Opposition to the fire union propositions is absolutely paramount,” he said in an email the Rivard Report. “Because of that, it doesn’t make sense to confuse voters with additional ballot propositions. That means that any important revisions to the Charter would need to wait until the fire union propositions are dispatched.

“We will not proactively put citizen-directed charter reform proposals on the same ballot that is sullied by the deception and self-interests of Chris Steele.”

Steele could not immediately be reached for comment.

“As expected, the petitions are certified. The public spoke on each,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who has worked as a consultant for the fire and police unions and has criticized City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Nirenberg regarding police and fire department contract negotiations, City spending, and transparency.

“Regardless of how you feel about [the petitions], over 100,000 signatures is a huge voice. This however just puts them on the ballot,” Brockhouse said. “I’ve always said, at the end of the day, the citizens will decide, not the politicians at City Hall and frankly, not the fire union. The public will decide, and I believe in them.”

Vacek will present a full report on the signatures to City Council on Thursday, May 17, during its regular meeting, which starts at 9 a.m.

The City is embroiled in a lawsuit that challenges the so-called “evergreen clause” in the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s contract that allows it to keep terms in place for 10 years after it expires.

Both sides participated in court-ordered mediation sessions, but talks broke down and no formal, public negotiation sessions have been held despite almost a dozen invitations from the City. Fire union President Chris Steele has repeatedly said the the union won’t come to the table until the lawsuit, which the City appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, is dropped.

City officials have said the San Antonio First initiative is an attempt to bully the City into a union-friendly contract or dropping the lawsuit – a claim Steele denies. However, one of the petitions is directly related to ensuring the union gets a more favorable contract.

Nirenberg and others are expected to launch an aggressive “vote no” counter-campaign against the ballot items.

“If the petitions are certified and the fire union proposals are on the ballot, we will make sure San Antonians know that all three of the measures are bad ideas,” he said.

The City has a state-mandated deadline of Aug. 20 to call for a charter amendment election for Nov. 6.

“This is just another step in the process,” Vacek wrote in a press release. “I want to thank my staff for their hard work and diligence and Bexar County staff for their equipment and assistance during this process.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com