Propositions A, B, and C: A Drama in 3 Acts

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Robin Black (left) signs a petition for chart amendments held by retired fire department lieutenant Bert Kuykendall outside a polling site.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robin Black (left) signs a petition for charter amendments offered by retired fire department Lt. Bert Kuykendall.

Early voting starts Monday – yes, already and also, at last – so I want to take one last opportunity to address the issue of the three City charter amendments proposed by firefighters union chief Chris Steele and his allies. Two weeks ago I made the case that it is, pure and simple, a power play for Steele and his union. Today I’ll explain exactly how it is designed to work.

California and other states that do a substantial amount of governing by initiative and referendum have shown us the ways well-funded special interests use these putative mechanisms of democracy to deceive voters into enacting measures against their own interests. A common technique is to cleverly wrap their own desires inside a cover of sweet, populist proposals.

That is exactly what the union’s Propositions A, B, and C are attempting to do. Let’s consider them a drama in three acts.

Act I:

The curtain rises with a sunny theme. We will take some power away from City Council and give it to the people.

Under the current City charter, if citizens don’t like an ordinance passed by City Council, they can force an election to overturn the ordinance by gathering signatures of 10 percent of voters in the city – currently about 75,000 – within 40 days of the ordinance’s passage.

Under the union’s proposal, such a referendum would require only 20,000 signatures no matter how the city grows, and the deadline would be extended to 180 days, or six months.

In the past, San Antonians have demonstrated their ability to meet the current requirements when sufficiently aroused. In 2002, they gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on a taxpayer-subsidized golf resort over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The plan was withdrawn without an election.

Earlier, citizens gathered enough signatures to overrule City Council on building the ill-conceived Applewhite Reservoir. In fact, they did it twice.

Are citizens so riled up about Council actions these days that they would take to the streets to gather even the 20,000 signatures required for these charter changes? Apparently not. Steele used $505,000 in union dues to hire a Buda firm to pay workers to collect the signatures for the current ballot initiatives.

Meanwhile, the union has set up a political action committee to campaign for passage of the three charter amendments. The union has poured $250,000 into the campaign. But only two citizens made contributions to the PAC, according to its recent filing.

One was a Jourdanton man named Roberto Herrera. He coughed up $76.48. The other was Bob Martin, head of the once-powerful Homeowner Taxpayer Association. His passion is measured at $98.80.

Public uprising? Grassroots movement? No. In technical political science terms, AstroTurf. But with skilled advertising, it could catch the public's fancy. It is the come-on for the real agenda.

Act II:

The second proposition is also blatantly populist. It would cap the city manager’s salary at 10 times that of the lowest-paid city worker. That’s about half the $475,000 a year City Manager Sheryl Sculley now makes. She also received a $75,000 bonus earlier this year.

Steele argues with outrage that Sculley is paid more than the president of the United States and the governor of Texas combined. That is true, but it’s also true that she makes less than one-tenth of what the average corporate CEO makes with a workforce and revenues the size of the City of San Antonio.

The proposition would also impose an eight-year term limit on San Antonio’s city managers.

This proposition is seen as vengeance on Sculley, who has been involved in a four-year war with the union over her insistence that firefighters pay for part of the burgeoning costs of health insurance for their families.

But while Steele and his union would love to squeeze Sculley’s bank account and even drive her out of town, the purpose of this proposal is deeper and darker. The fact is, it would affect only future city managers, not Sculley. So it can’t be just about her.

Consider this: Sculley was the first city manager with the skill to persuade City Council to take on the issue of out-of-control medical costs for the powerful police and fire unions. She did it not only by solidifying her standing with a succession of mayors and councils, but also by getting then-Mayor Julián Castro to appoint an impressive task force to study the issue and educate the public regarding the danger to the rest of the city budget.

The real agenda in capping the city manager’s salary at an uncompetitive level is to ensure that San Antonio never has another city manager with the skills and strength to take on the unions. Steele more than hints at that when he rails that Sculley is too powerful.

Speaking of term limits, the City may want to consider initiating them for police and fire union heads as part of the next contract. Taxpayers invest a lot of money in training these men and women to do the very important jobs we give them. Steele has not worked as a firefighter for the 13 years he has been the union head, yet the taxpayers bear his approximately $185,000 annual compensation.

An alternative would be to let union members pay Steele what they think he’s worth. If they can afford $750,000 to gather signatures and run a campaign for these proposals, it seems they can afford it.

Act III:

This is the dramatic ending, even if it’s delivered sotto voce. It is where Steele and the union drop all populist pretenses. For all their talk in Act I of giving more power to the people, Act III is designed to keep the people out of the union’s affairs.

Under the current firefighters union contract, a final impasse in contract negotiations is decided in court, possibly with a 12-citizen jury making the decision. The union doesn’t want that.

This charter amendment would give the union sole power to decide when an impasse has been reached, then force the City into arbitration. A single man or woman, or possibly a small panel, would make final and unappealable decisions on the contract.

Police and fire unions have had very favorable experiences with arbitration over the years in disciplinary proceedings. They have every reason to prefer arbitration to the tender mercies of elected judges or tax paying jurors.

And if they really wanted to give power to the people – remember Act I? – it would be very simple. They could simply adopt the impasse procedures of the police contract.

The final arbiters there? Why, it’s the voters in a special election.

31 thoughts on “Propositions A, B, and C: A Drama in 3 Acts

  1. Rick, I agree with you about the Union’s self-serving tactics. Steele is a coward with an inflated salary. He should be term limited, as you suggest, and his salary paid for by union dues. His tactics are cynical aimed to take out a rival in the City Manager.

    However, what is fascinating to observe is that almost all the city politicians and activist groups who claim to be Progressive seem to be against Propositions 1 and 2. With Proposition 1, if the referendums have merit, they should be put on the ballot, debated, and voted on by the people without undue burden. The implication is that “la gente” is too gullible to understand what they’re voting on—the very opposite of populist democracy.

    Let’s look at Proposition 2. Local Progressives rightly descry income inequality in this city, pointing to segregated, chronic poverty zones in San Antonio, yet they compare City Manager Sculley’s salary with that of other highly-compensated CEOs rather than to that of average working-class people. Henry Ford said his own workers should make enough to afford the cars the company made. Whose side are the Progressives on?

    Moreover, instead of debating why health care costs are so high and out-of-reach for working class Americans, the Progressive politicians and activists are saying that the firefighters’ health plans are too generous, and these workers—who often experience severe health problems affecting them and their families—should be happy with skimpy plans like the ones the rest of us are lucky to have. What happened to Medicare for All?

    As a Progressive Democrat myself, I can respect where the business community is coming from, even though I don’t agree with their ideology. The Vote No crowd on the Left, on the other hand, is using Doom and Gloom rhetoric, skimpy on evidence, to bolster their argument. The divide seems to be along class/education lines rather than on political beliefs.

    I’m still undecided on how I’ll vote.

  2. Great report. Thank you. I am voting NO to all 3 propositions. Good that you reported that HIS salary is $185,000 PLUS.

    Thank you for getting the Facts and truth out to the regular taxpayers.

  3. As a native and former Los Angeles resident, I am very worried about San Antonio mimicking California by adopting an “initiative” or ballot “proposition” process. This article correctly explains the dire risks. Are you willing to risk becoming like California with chaos, regulation and high cost?

  4. Please state how many “sweet populist proposals” are really special interest backed campaigns in disguise. A researcher looked at every state-wide initiative in the US since 1900 and showed that your prevailing-wisdom assertions are wrong. Nice story about the “evil special interests and the duped voters” though. You almost had me fooled with that “aw shucks” populist rhetoric.

    Your anecdotes also reflect cowardice and political machinations on the part of the Council when they withdraw proposals before a vote: if it goes to a vote, it’s binding.

    If they “adopt the rule” then they can more easily un-adopt the rule, or water it down, later. Example: the sick leave issue described by your own columnists “Nirenberg said City Council adopting the ordinance provides an opportunity to find common ground between employees and businesses. It also allows potential revisions to the existing proposal before it goes into effect. ” Phrased differently: we’ll adopt the rule to keep it off the ballot, and then see about changing it later.

    Tying initiatives to a 40-day, vote-date window is also problematic. The mayor controls the agenda and can move or delay votes, moving the goalposts more or less at will. This was dramatically demonstrated when he delayed the SAWS rate vote last year when the outcome was in question. Even after that delayed vote, SAWS was required to go back and re-modify their November-approved budget in new voting in January to reflect the changes required by the mayor in order to sway reluctant Council members. Are voters required to be in an ever-vigilant state of pique, poised to fire up the petition machines waiting for the Council to hold a vote?

    You may need to re-read your history as well. How long was the petition drive against the PGA course? 40 days? No – it was over three months long. Possibly because there are different rules for different types of petitions to overturn different types of ordinances.

    Yes, and even after the voters voted against Applewhite, the City water board sued the voters to overturn the election. Your comment raises a point, though. If voters were against Applewhite in ’91, then why did the Council continue pursuing it? Do they not represent the people? The people had to say no again in ’94?

  5. Interesting that you list the 2 people who donated to the ‘yes’ campaign, but none that donated to the ‘no’ campaign. I’d like to see the lists of donators and political/business supporters of both campaigns…I’m sure it will tell the whole story! Developers/insiders/politicians v the people?

      • So are the developers who have been given carte blanche over the objections of citizens and neighborhoods and a council that doesn’t understand or plan for growth, raises rates and appraisals with no real recourse for citizens/taxpayers…and pays for lawsuits it continually loses…with taxpayer money. There is a whole cadre of political and business insiders who run this city-and have for decades. City Council creates non-profits, boards and task forces filled with CC members and like minded cronies. The $ for an increase in bond interest? I guess it could come from the tax abatements and incentives given to developers to build luxury condos in desirable areas!

  6. Rick, thank you for pointing out the defects of the three propositions.

    I will still vote yes because the old process for city ordinances has not worked during the past few decades. Passed the three propositions now and enhanced them at a later date.

    I currently trust the fire fighters association (union) more than the developers, who currently are too successful in influencing City staff.

  7. Rick, thank you for pointing out the defects of the three propositions.

    I will still vote yes because the old process for city ordinances has not worked during the past few decades. Vote yes now and enhance the propositions later.

    I currently trust the fire fighters association (union) more than the developers, who currently are too successful in influencing City staff.

  8. I wish the article had included the information that the city’s excellent bond rating is promised to be downgraded if any one of these propositions pass. So the yes voters would be supporting an increased interest payment of up to $50 million per year. Where’s that money going to come from? Your neighborhood’s street improvement? Your police substation? Your pool lifeguards? Where do you propose to cut? Someone else’s neighborhood? Or hey, let’s raise taxes to offset this entirely avoidable increase in interest payment. If for no other reason, that’s why to vote NO to all three props. If you have an issue with your elected officials, guess what, get involved. Go to their offices and speak to them. I can say first hand that personal interaction with my elected officials has made a difference. So vote NO. Then figure out what you want to change and go relentlessly to your elected officials and help make your change happen. Voting yes is the lazy way.

  9. What Mr. Casey failed to point out is that special interests already control our city government. Special interests like the Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Association, the developers, yes the very same interests that have kept San Antonio an impoverished city. The very same interests that have caused gentrification and unaffordable housing. The very same interests that deny equal education opportunity to Black and Brown children of the inner city. So please stop with the false pretenses that the proposed Amendments will harm the city of San Antonio. The harm has been done by the Vote No machine!

    • We should also stop with the false pretenses that any of these propositions (Prop C least of all) will do anything about the problems you cite. I agree that special interests are a problem. These propositions will do absolutely nothing to get rid of them.

      Again, would you burn down your house to get rid of a few rats?

      • The proposed Amendments are a threat to the corporate control of our city. These Amendments are necessary for the Firefighters and the general public to gain needed justice!

        • Whether or not the firefighters union gets to force arbitration whenever they want in their private contract with the city has nothing whatsoever to do with “corporate control” of anything. Neither does arbitrarily limiting the salary and tenure of some future city manager. Maybe, just maybe, Prop A does, but it’s a square peg in a round hole at best.

  10. Wow, amazes me that people deduce concerning the 3 Charter Amendments; My personal belief based on my life experience living in COSA since 1993 ( I am a Native Texan) is GO VOTE NO. Remember, those cities up North that filed for bankruptcy- too much revenue spent on pension/health benefits for civil/public safety workers!!! Why would you want a small subset of registered voters determine future direction of COSA. Besides, let evergreen clause run concerning FF negotiation, then start Fresh; or go one more, let Bexar County establish County Fire department and discontinue city Fire Department. Recognize that COSA encompasses majority of Bexar County

  11. Yeah, this article in invoking the big, bad “California” example left me flat. California has the fifth largest economy in the WORLD. They’re the most progressive and liberal, as well. I think that’s what you’re trying to scare red Texans with–not that Californians have really done any self-harm (though they have in some ways, to be fair). Houston is larger than San Antonio, does not have a city manager and ranks higher on that Wallethub list than both San Antonio and Dallas. I agree with an earlier comment about developers and the chambers of commerce (“special interests”) already having the ear of council and the city manager sans signatures, so that’s non-starter. As for the firefighters, climate change is going to make them everyone’s best friend if they are not already. What exactly are they trying to extract from the city that the city finds so unreasonable? In 2014 only 18,000 voters turned out in all of Bexar County–out of about maybe 800,000 registered voters. So, already only a few govern the many. That’s the real problem. Low voter turnout. I’m voting “Yes” on the props.

  12. Tonight, I listened to Henry Cisneros and the other political individuals on the telephone conference debate. These individuals are wise, experienced and knowledgeable. They have a proven record of accomplishments and are credible. How can anyone not lean to their recommendations that are supported with data and risk analysis. I read the Fitch Tax Bonds AAA analysis and contacted the primary analyst of the report, Mr. Jose Acosta. I informed Mr. Acosta, that I have a PhD, a professor who teaches statistical analyst and research methodology. After speaking with Mr. Acosta and listening to Cisneros and company their reasons why we should vote no, I have made my decision. I am voting YES on all three propositions. After reviewing the financial analysis, I had to ask myself one question. Do I trust politicians or firefighters? I could never trust a politician, but I trust a firefighter with my life and the life of my family. Sorry Henry, I will stick with the firefighters.
    So, there you have it Rick Casey, I am voting Yes for all three propositions.
    Dr. Anthony Rogers

    • Dr. Rogers,

      Could you elaborate on what you found wanting in Mr. Acosta’s analysis of the Fitch Tax Bonds AAA report? As someone who is still undecided (see the first comment above), I would like to know what you found unconvincing in these documents.

      • If Dr. Rogers can’t then I can tell you what I found unconvincing.

        First, I recommend you carefully read the documents, as the mayor says “get the facts.” Look at the metrics, consider the values used, look for the source of the values.

        The mayor’s claims of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in increased interest costs due to degraded credit ratings are simply non-existent in any of the documents. The worst-worst-case presented was $185M – over 20 years – based on a 3-level drop on a $3.5 billion bond (largest bond in SA history was only $850M, not $3.5B). See Table 10 on page 29. You may note the absence of the parameters of the calculations on that page. To determine those are cumulative numbers over a 20-year period, you have to refer back to the introduction on page 5.

        Put in clear language: the mayor is simply making things up to scare people – or he has not read the reports – or he has read them but doesn’t understand them. The facts, as he says, are in “black and white” but he chooses to ignore them.

        Further, Dr. Nivin’s analysis is hardly “independent”. Read the footnotes. The source of his data on increased borrowing costs is the same source of the letter warning of impending doom: FTN/Hilltop Financial. He did not independently assess the costs, simply took someone else’s values. Both Nivin and FTN allude to the theoretical higher costs on some recent projects, but they never actually calculate what those costs might have been.

        Yes, costs would have increased on those specific projects – but how much more on those real-world projects? Give me something I can understand and relate to, not a hypothetical value that is larger than any bond issue in the history of the City.

        Nivin goes so far as to compare increased borrowing costs on a $2.5B issue to the $850M issue – while carefully omitting the $850M value. I ran the numbers myself, and the increased costs on the 2017-2022 $850M bond issue might have been less than $6M over 20 years – or less than 1% – nowhere near Nivin’s claimed $17.5M.

        The public is being misled by its elected representatives.

        But then again, so are the fire fighters.

        That’s why I’m voting Yes on A, and No on C. I was a No on B, but I might change my mind – since the City Staff, under Sculley is responsible for reviewing these analyses – and if this is the best they’ve got then I’ve got doubts about the competence of the City Staff under her leadership.

        But don’t take my opinions and analyses as gospel: read the reports, get the facts, think for yourself. Do the math.

      • Mr. Acosta’s analysis is based on assumptions not sound accounting facts. More so about increasing of city taxes. Numbers can be skewed to provide you any answer that is convenient.

    • Thank you for letting us know that Henry Cisneros wants us to vote NO. That is enough for me to vote YES on all three propositions. I will always vote against our corrupt liberals.

  13. I appreciated this article as well as many of the comments and questions here. I would likely support lowering the threshold for referenda if this were coupled with a ban on paid petition workers. As it stands I’ll vote NO.

    On the other hand, despite generally trusting our mayor, I think he and our city can do better than accepting the status quo of hyper-inflated executive salaries. So YES to capping the city manager’s salary at 10x his/her lowest paid employee. I just wish the term limit question were separate.

    Lastly just as I’m a fan of the American middle class I’m also pro-union, and more so than ever in our current political era, but I like this author’s suggestion of the public vote rather than arbitration in the event of an impasse.

  14. I, too, can see through City Councils communication tactics to San Antonio citizens. Don’t be fooled and don’t let them take your voice away. Bottom line, vote YES to all 3 ‼️

  15. I received a very nicely printed piece of propaganda aimed at Senior Citizens. In short, it said if I don’t vote NO, I will suffer “raise our taxes, slash our city services for seniors and take power out of our hands”. What a bunch of hockey poo! All the while implying the special interest are lining their pockets. Humm. I have not seen anyone spending a lot of money to send out an expensive mailer for the Vote Yes side of things.
    I am voting YES and thanks to Anthony Rogers above, I will vote yes to all 3!

  16. I don’t want to a city manager who has to be fired in 8 years. I don’t want a union running our city. This is NOT about firefighters. I don’t want small groups dictating how our city runs. I’m voting NO NO NO. And despite all the nice math above, when our bond rating is downgraded and city services are cut as a result or our taxes increase, I hope that all of you YES voters remember that it’s your fault.

  17. I am an educated retired fire fighter. I am proud of it. Do you trust politicians? Do you trust firefighters? Whom do you trust more, a firefighter (9/11) or a politician who are known to lie. Their popularity is at the lowest level. I place my trust on firefighters and first responders. Not politicians like the Mayor and Henry Cisneros. Just my opinion.

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