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With all precincts reporting at 1:30 a.m., voters sent unique messages for each of the City’s three highly disputed ballot propositions Tuesday evening. They supported Proposition B, with slightly more than 59 percent voting in favor of capping tenure and compensation for future San Antonio city managers.
Proposition C, the measure about arbitration for the firefighters union labor contract, also passed, though with a narrower margin just less than 51 percent. Earlier in the evening, Prop C appeared to be headed for defeat, but it ultimately passed with a 5,623-vote margin.
Voters were firmly against Proposition A, which would have redefined referenda rules, with slightly more than 54 percent.
“Obviously there are great differences of opinion,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “This will impair our ability to recruit the best executive talent for our city. But the voters have spoken loudly and clearly.
“You can’t argue with the long track record of professionalism in our city,” he added. “But I, as a mayor, have committed to continue our forward progress, which again voters have emphatically affirmed. And sometimes progress is not in a straight line.”
Steele and other union officials did not respond to requests for comment. Neither the union nor supporters of the propositions held an official election watch party Tuesday night.
The city’s firefighters union led a petition drive to place the proposed charter amendments on the ballot. Proposition B will limit the tenure of future city managers to eight years and cap their compensation to 10 times the amount of the lowest paid, full-time city employee, and Proposition C will allow the firefighters union to unilaterally call for an impasse in its stalled contract negotiations with the City and enter binding arbitration.
Proposition A, the only failed measure, would have expanded the scope of City Council decisions that could be challenged with a public vote and make it easier to get such issues on the ballot.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a supporter of the props who has worked for the police and fire unions, said the early vote total sent a clear message: Voters are “okay with City Hall making decisions because [they] can vote [Council members] out every two years … [but] not okay with the city manager’s power.”
“I think what should happen is we start to right-size who has the power here,” Brockhouse said. “I think we should move away [from] a council-manager form of government towards a mayor-council one.”
Sheryl Sculley has been city manager of San Antonio since 2005 and received a $450,000 salary for her work last year in addition to a $75,000 bonus. Under Proposition B, the next city manager would be able to make roughly $300,000 per year in compensation.
“I always have faith in the electorate and I am grateful they recognized the good work of our City Government over the past decade,” Sculley stated in a text. “We’ve worked hard to deliver high-quality services at the lowest cost to the taxpayers. The credit for that success goes to the strong local elected leadership and the City staff who work every day to deliver services to the community.”
Sculley became a union target in part because of her role in trying to negotiate health care costs in the City’s labor agreements with the police and fire unions. While the police union came to a compromise with the city, the fire union refused to come to the table to negotiate with Sculley, which created hard feelings on both sides. However, Prop B would apply only to future city managers, officials have said, because Sculley’s existing contract does not have an expiration date.
Sculley said, “I am certain the Council will operate within the adopted constraints and do their best in selecting the next City Manager.”
The propositions have divided San Antonio for months as each side desperately tried to make their case to voters. Both sides used aggressive rhetoric and smear campaigns to discredit the other.
“I voted against every last one of them,” said longtime Eastside resident Ada Williams after voting Tuesday afternoon at Martin Luther King Academy. “[The propositions] represent a special interest, and I think propositions should benefit the majority and not a selected union.”
Williams said the leaked recordings of firefighters union President Chris Steele outlining his tactics to scare voters and place firefighter-friendly people in city government solidified her vote.
However, Robert Derner, a student attending St. Mary’s University’s School of Law, said he voted in favor of propositions A and C because he felt proposition A could help citizens leading grassroots efforts to change city ordinances and policies.
“Making it easier to bring an issue before voters … would be a good thing not just for [firefighters] but for grassroots groups down the line,” Derner said after voting at the San Antonio Housing Authority’s facility near Southtown. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed or fail but getting it on the desk [of voters] is a good thing.”
Supporters claimed Prop A would give voters a more powerful voice at City Hall by requiring 20,000 petition signatures in 180 days rather than roughly 70,000 in 40 days to trigger a referendum. City tax rates, budget decisions, and more could be subject to a public vote if Prop A were to pass. Props B and C are more closely related to the union’s fight with the City over its labor contract, but all three, according to Steele’s recordings, are part of his plans to amass more power at City Hall.
Brockhouse said the close numbers on Prop C likely were due to a misunderstanding with the term “arbitration,” he said. “I don’t think [voters were] comfortable with it.”
A win on just B is a political “wash,” he said. But early Wednesday, he added, “I think winning two out of three [props] and only 54 percent win on A for Ron, after spending almost $3 million, is a clear message. Things need to change and City Hall and the people have said so in a public vote. It will be interesting to see how the Council responds.”
Nirenberg and most City Council members, including several former mayors, held a joint news conference against the propositions last week, saying they could limit the City of San Antonio’s ability to function efficiently, end up costing millions in increased interest rates, inhibit its ability to hire top city manager talent, and result in a more expensive labor agreement with firefighters. Several prominent business leaders, including chambers of commerce around the city, joined the Go Vote No camp.
However, several firefighters believe an imbalance of power led to this moment.
“The power structure is skewed a little bit in the wrong direction,” said Manuel Barajas, a union member who has been a firefighter for two years. “It was never meant to be this way where the city manager has complete and absolute power – and that’s definitely the way it seems.”
Find more of our local and statewide election coverage here.
Reporter Roseanna Garza contributed to this article.