Petition Fraud is the New Face of Election Fraud

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Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association deliver signed petitions to the City Clerks office.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association deliver signed petitions to the City Clerks office in April 2018.

I was walking home from the King William Parade on the last Saturday in April when I noticed two people stationed in the alley fronting East Arsenal Street just outside the fairgrounds, beckoning Fiesta passersby to stop and sign petitions.

After listening to them for a minute, I remarked, "You don't look like firefighters." In retrospect, I should have just listened. Both sized me up as an adversary and interrupted their deceptive claims about City Hall corruption and the need to replace the city manager and others supposedly hostile to first responders.

Neither petition peddler was willing to answer questions, so I walked on. Now I wish I had exercised my legal right to record the individuals as more and more people report they were deceived into signing the petitions by people they believed were actual firefighters and fellow city residents. I wish we had a recording of the misleading pitches to share with readers.

It's a felony to buy votes in Texas, yet San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele and his fellow union leaders found a workaround: buy petition signatures instead of votes and then hope for a winning outcome at the polls.

It's legal, but it's also deceptive. State elected officials ought to outlaw paid petition workers who parachute into Texas cities to gather signatures. Even with more than one-third, or nearly 37,000 signatures, rejected because the individuals were non-residents or otherwise ineligible to vote, the paid workers gathered enough signatures in San Antonio to give the union officials their money's worth.

People who do not live here, do not work here, do not even know the city, were used to convince San Antonians to sign petitions that threaten to undermine local government. Mayor Ron Nirenberg did not mince words when I asked him about the union's tactics in an on-stage conversation last week.

"I’ve talked to my colleagues in other cities... and they’re all experiencing some sort of petition-driven chaos in their own cities. Ours is by far the most dramatic and draconian," Nirenberg said. "But they’re all ready to take a look at this and I believe we should. This is a cottage industry ... people who have no connection to San Antonio. The firm that apparently has been peddling this stuff is from Buda. And really, it’s pay per signature.

"We have plenty of reports [that] people who signed the petitions were outright lied to, people falsely identifying themselves as firefighters… people were misled as to what they were actually signing," Nirenberg said. "It’s wrong, it’s an abuse of our democratic system. We have voter ID laws in the state of Texas, yet someone can be asked and deceived into signing a petition to put a charter amendment onto the ballot — they don’t have to show any of that. We do need to look at this because it’s created chaos within multiple cities with some pretty dramatic long-range effects."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg asks the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations as he stands behind a time clock marking the time since the last contract expired.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg asks the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations in March 2018 as he stands behind a time clock marking the time since the last contract expired.

Voters in San Antonio will vote on three union-conceived charter amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, all with far-reaching consequences that would undermine the City's ability to deliver essential services.

The petition workers were hired by Texas Petition Strategies, based in Buda, to do the work that firefighters themselves could not or would not do. Union officials paid the company $510,000, apparently using union dues, and then failed to report the political expenditures until the San Antonio Express-News uncovered the deception.

The union tactics worked, of course, and last week City Council recognized the petitions as valid and approved placement of the three charter amendments on the ballot.

A state district judge also gave the union a victory when she denied a request by lawyers representing the Go Vote No campaign who were seeking a temporary restraining order against the petitions being placed on the ballot. The campaign's lawsuit challenging the legality of how the union funded the petition drives could still lead to a courtroom showdown before the Nov. 6 election.

The right of citizens to petition government as a last resort in the democratic process is important and deserving of protection, but it's a corruption of the system when you can shortcut the process by buying your way onto the ballot.

The firefighters union undoubtedly will spend far more money between now and Nov. 6 attacking City officials and trying to convince voters to approve the charter amendments. The three proposals are an attack by the union on municipal government as it exists today. Steele has refused to engage in collective bargaining for four years now, and continues to deny the ballot measures are payback, specifically targeting City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and now, Nirenberg. The union's ads and social media, however, make the union's intentions clear.

One measure would make it far easier for citizens to challenge ordinances passed by City Council. Union officials would only have to pay petition peddlers to gather 20,000 signatures to force a ballot measure anytime they disagreed with City Council action and wanted to force an election.

A second measure would diminish the office of city manager even though San Antonio has been very well served by a council-manager form of government, which is generally recognized as more professional and less subject to machine politics and corruption than a strong mayoral form of government.

A third measure would force binding arbitration on a new labor agreement between the City and fire union, and thus enable union officials to win a new contract without engaging in collective bargaining.

A study commissioned by the City estimates it would lose a minimum of hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, in the coming years due to reduced economic activity and tax collections if the measures pass. Even now, those working on the Go Vote No campaign to defeat the union measures estimate it will cost more than $1 million to educate voters and counter the union messaging.

This is politics at its worst, and why so many citizens turn off and do not participate. That would be a terrible mistake this year when the future governance of San Antonio is at stake. Voters can support their elected mayor and City Council, or they can back a union leader accountable only to his members who bought the signatures of unwitting petition signers. It should be an easy choice to make.

23 thoughts on “Petition Fraud is the New Face of Election Fraud

  1. I’m still wondering what the rank and file firefighters think. Is their morale so low that the see no other options? If so, we need to be addressing that.

  2. Well said! Having lived in California, I know the affect a proposition driven government can have. Every election multiple propositions are placed on the ballot that counteract the propositions passed in prior years effectively seesawing laws back and forth. It’s horible.

  3. I don’t see this as any different than the tactics used in political elections. The voter needs to stay informed. And yes voters are lied to on every level. That is the political arena. Politics is not a nice platform in anyway.

  4. Hogwash, I am sorry that the voters will rightly end the over paying of public servants in certain jobs. Even more sorry that somehow offends you. Why is the big question. Why so offended that the over paying o city manager will rightly end? Will all the legal voters voting to end this stupidity be a fraud? Courts have not stepped in and called this illegal so tadaa we all get to end this stupidity once and for all at least in our city. Thank god!

    • What makes a public servant overpaid? San Antonio’s city manager makes far less than most CEOs of similarly-sized organizations, her salary comprises less than 0.2% of the City’s budget, and she’s managed to achieve the highest possible bond rating 9 years in a row (the only large city to do so), which actually saves us far more each year than she makes. I may not necessarily appreciate her management style, but is she really overpaid?

    • I remember SA city government before Sculley, it was not professional and way too much self importance by Council members. She has brought a firm hand that was needed. Firefighters while doing a great jod, should be ashamed at the childish, one upmanship of their tactics. I wonder if the ever figured out what that $510,000 would have bought them in benefits. Vote NO x 3!!

  5. I had an obvious hired hand deliver a door hanger last week. I said b4 he gets too excited I wonder if we are on the same side. He said for sure we were and read each proposal to which I answered emphatically NO! to each. He seemed pleased and the bold headline said “We say NO MORE” (emphasis on the NO to my eyes) so I shook his hand and said I guess we were on the same page after all and good luck. As he left I yelled “I don’t know why the firefighters hate the city so much”. His response was a smile, thumbs up and a yes nod of his head. Reading further down the card I saw the opposite suggestion to actually vote YES. They need to hire front men with a little more of a clue to at least try to make the case.

  6. I think the more important thing is that signers are legal and not mislead. Even if firefighters did the work, I understand that a good % of them are not residents of the city paying their salary. This might partially explain their lack of care over the proposal ramifications. Thankfully, they can’t vote. Speaking of misleading, I signed the Sick Leave with emphasis given that it was just so it could be voted on. I do understand the influence that going on this ballot would have on the other proposals outcome, and agree, but technically misled. Signed as anti-Sick Leave, but pro-majority rule

  7. I tell my kids that I learned all I need to know on the sports field. With that I compare one proposal to the Spurs. It would be like insisting they produce winning seasons, but Pop would have to go regardless after just a few years and the best player could only be paid a certain multiple of the lowest. There is beauty in stability — remember the years of rotating coaches? I don”t exactly like the inflated salaries in either case, but you pay people what the market demands to get the results you want. The city has been benefiting financially from stability for a number of years now — don’t screw it up.

    • Thank you JPS. An eloquently simple explanation I think we should all appreciate for it’s monumental worth! If Sculley were a man, would this even be part of the conversation? The petition (if passed) would NOT affect Sculley’s term in office, but that of her successors. We would never again have competent leadership in the City Manager position who could directly influence the city’s direction. Instead we will attract a lower level of talent, to match the lower level of pay. We will easily be able to distinguish between pre- and post-Sculley with a lower bond-rating (costs more money to borrow for bond-funded improvement projects) and leaders with less authority to elevate San Antonio, missing the opportunity to leverage the city’s true potential. The new ballot measures are unbalanced as they serve to solely benefit the union who would be able to oust any future leaders who don’t advocate for their interests. Mayor Lila Cockrell and Cheryl Sculley are two prominent women leaders who have helped pave the way for all San Antonians and they have prepared us for a bright future. Let’s not squander our progress over political foolishness.

  8. So some think the CM is overpaid. Frankly, I don’t know if she is or not, but I do know that setting the CM salary as a multiple of the lowest paid city employee is plain foolish.

    Now, if we were to apply that formula (at a much reduced multiple) to Chief Hood, how would that go over? Not well, and though I think he is grossly overpaid that is not on the ballot and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    Unless, we pass prop 3. I lived in CA and I know the horrors of the referendum system, but when the council rides roughshod over the citizenry’s concerns what alternative do we have for reining them in. Vote them out of office? Good luck with that. But with a referendum, a motivated few can gin up the emotions with all kinds of messages, whether true or false. In that fashion, we can rename Cesar Chavez to Durango, get back Old Hwy 90, eliminate Tobacco 21, and so on. In short, we can put some brakes on the paternalistic do-gooders in the council who vote for measures they know are unwanted, but are “the right thing to do.”

  9. More fearmongering by the Rivard Report.

    If you want to talk about ‘corruption of the system’, why not discuss the millions and millions paid by the business community to elect their representstives to do their bidding.

    Let’s be real and admit that outside entities such as consultants and political advertisng firms influence elections and public opinion it all the time. This is what is usually called democracy at work. In actuality it’s a way of ‘buying your way onto the ballot.’

    When the poor or working class utilize resources and expertise that are perfectly legal, it’s called ‘corruption of the system’. Such hypocricy and self serving interest.

    What about corruption of a system that pays a city employee more that half a million dollar salary, more than the combined salary of the Governor of Texas and President of U.S.? Can we get a story on this?

    What the business community is freaking out about is that
    they are actually hearing the voice of San Antonio and they don’t like it. People who signed the petitions knew exactly what they were signing.

    • You pay what’s necessary to get quality people to perform the job in question to the level you expect. The Gov and President are compensated well beyond their salary with perks of office and post employment opportunities. I would prefer to hear the case (through comparison) that we can get the same quality CM for half the price. Then I would change sides. Do you think any Governor would ever be interested in changing jobs to run SA and upping their salary? I don’t think so.

    • If even a bit of what you say were true, we would not have the anti-business council we have. What is the realtime between the gov’s and president’s salary and the cm? Cut the cm’s salary to 50 k and see what you get.

  10. I never see yard signs saying VOTE NO on the 3 firefighter ballot proposals. Why is GO VOTE NO putting up so little fight? A few noble speeches at City Hall won’t get these crippling proposals voted down.

  11. In Seattle, where I lived for 16 years, there was a guy who was a real fly in the ointment re: petition drives. He was a relentless nuisance and a never-ending self-promoter. I happened to Google him the other day to see what happened to him and whether he was still a presence there. Turns out to have been doing some sub rosa things with the money. Color me shocked. Bahaha, not.

    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/ag-sues-tim-eyman-for-2m-says-he-profited-from-campaign-money/

  12. The fire union addition to the ballot is a sham. There was no forecasting, there was very little forethought, just a lot of “put that in your pipe and smoke it” to the city council and the city manager.

    The guy leading the fire union is an absolute blowhard, who only cares about wins and losses, not whether the fire fighters get the best deal now.

  13. I don’t believe who solicited the signatures is a concern or whether or not they represented themselves as firefighters or not. What should be the litmus test is if what they told potential petitioners they signing up to support was correct. It appears they met that standard. I have not heard many accounts of petitioners saying I did not understand what I was signing.

  14. we shall see after the election. All you wealthy folks who are proud of pumping half a mill to someone you go on and vote and those of us who actually work for a living will go out and vote and in the end we will see if there are more wealthy big spenders or more working people. By my count you guys lose this one by a really wide margin. Good luck. You could always pony up the money yourself.

  15. But for something as important as voting, it would be “un-American” to show a free, furnished county ID or DL……….. ID’s are only for unimportant items such as passports, DL, cashing checks, drinking age, etc. the tail is wagging the dog again.

  16. RE: People who do not live here, do not work here .. do you mean people like Christian Archer, who doesn’t live here, works for PACs to push Bond Issues that he won’t have to pay for .. He lives in New Braunfels and his tax rate there is 1.827 compared to San Antonio, 2.67 ! You haven’t done that story yet, Rivard.

  17. Probably the degree of self-serving chutzpah on the part of the pro-yes supporters is so stunning as to be difficult to comprehend for many rational voters. How can these propositions actually mean what they say? Well, they do. Anyone who wants to return city governance to conditions even worse than they were 100 years ago had better quickly vote yes.

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