SA’s November Challenge: Defeating Fire Union’s Charter Amendments

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San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall in April 2018.

For citizens who care about the future of San Antonio and its governance, there should be one issue of paramount importance: the defeat of the firefighters union and the three destructive charter amendments its paid petition peddlers have placed on a crowded November election ballot.

What to do? Simple: Cast your votes in the national, state, and local races, and then go vote no in opposition to Propositions 1, 2, and 3.

“Go Vote No” can be credited to political consultant Christian Archer, who oversees the campaign efforts of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and many others. It’s a catchy, bumper-sticker phrase meant to inoculate voters against a union disinformation campaign that conceals this reality: a yes vote sabotages real democracy.

Union officials could run for office themselves if they believe they are fit to govern the city, of course, but the preference of Chris Steele, the controversial president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, and his allies is to manipulate and mislead from a back room so the union’s misguided motives and methods are not easily grasped by the electorate.

Let’s get one thing straight: This is not an attack on the dues-paying firefighters who most of us hold in high esteem for their frontline, first responder work. This is about the union officials who collect those dues and are as good at duping their own membership as they are members of the public.

Click here to read more about the three charter amendments.

Proposition 1 expands the referendum process, turning every Council decision of significance into an election. Under current rules, 70,000 signatures – about 10 percent of the voters – are needed to place a measure on the ballot. Prop 1 would reduce the required number of signatures to 10,000 – about 3 percent of the voters – and give imported petition peddlers 180 days instead of 40 days to collect signatures.

Recent petition drives by the union and others suggest half or more of such signatures are duplicates, phony, or ineligible, costing the City Clerk significant tax dollars and time to authenticate. Reports of petition signatories later reporting they were misled by the signature solicitors are common.

Proposition 2 would require City officials to submit to binding arbitration with the firefighters union, which for years has refused to come to the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Arbitrators must be approved by the union, and it’s common knowledge that those who want to be selected for the paid work need to demonstrate union sympathies. It’s not a fair process.

Proposition 3 places terms limits and a salary cap on the city manager’s position, an undisguised hit job on Sculley, who has been subjected to smear campaigns by both the police and firefighter unions. I’ve written this before: Can anyone name a male city leader who has been subjected to the same  unending attacks as our female city manager?

Sculley eventually will retire and a new city manager will follow in her footsteps, an unenviable succession. San Antonio may rank fourth in wealth and tax base among the big Texas cities, but we have the best record of fiscal management and the only AAA bond rating. We can bid farewell to that bond rating if Wall Street sees the union muscling its way into local government.

Union officials want government by petition, but they don’t really believe their proposals will make for better government. They are in this to wreak havoc and to try to gain through mayhem what they are unwilling to seek at the negotiating table. They somehow see their tactics as leading to some position of bargaining supremacy, as if City officials should be made to surrender rather than negotiate. For Steele, this is a war.

Until the city’s civic and business leaders are galvanized to defeat the three charter amendments, everything else should be set aside. City Council should vote to approve the sick-pay ordinance currently under consideration, which has wide and deep community support, and then let legislators and the courts decide its fate. It should be kept off the November ballot, where it will only confuse voters also facing the three propositions.

Business leaders still sore over the City’s decision not to bid for Amazon’s HQ2 or the Republican National Convention should set aside those feelings and do whatever is necessary to support Nirenberg and the SSSF political action committee with contributions for the GoVoteNo campaign. The union will receive funds from outside San Antonio to fuel its disinformation campaign and attacks on individual leaders.

The future of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza do not have to reach final resolution while the GoVoteNo campaign gains traction. Why weigh down the public with so many issues at this moment?

At a time when daily newspapers are suffering from seemingly endless job eliminations and financial setbacks, a July 18 article by San Antonio Express-News reporter Josh Baugh, who covers city government, is evidence that newspapers still fulfill an important watchdog role.

Baugh’s reporting uncovered the union’s failure to report $504,000 in payments to a firm in Buda that actually sent workers to San Antonio to gather petition signatures without disclosing they were paid non-residents.

That’s right: The petition drive was not the work of San Antonio firefighters. It was the work of paid outsiders who do not live here, do not work here, and were only in it for the paycheck. Steele only came clean after realizing that Baugh was on his trail.

Even then, Steele reported the $504,000 as an “in-kind contribution” from Texas Petition Strategies when, in fact, he sent the company six-figure checks on three different occasions earlier this year. Yet the union PAC didn’t have enough funds in its own account to cover such sums, which means Steele and other union officials were dipping into other unidentified accounts to fund its so-called grassroots petition drive.

With three months to go until the November elections, more might emerge about union financial dealings that will give voters a clearer understanding of the individuals behind this Trojan horse so poorly disguised as people power.

I am moderating an on-stage conversation with Nirenberg at the Pearl Stable on Tuesday, Aug. 14. There are still tickets available for the event, which will be jointly presented by the Rivard Report and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Click here for more information.

There are no limits on the topics we will discuss, but as far as I am concerned, the big issue is protecting our system of municipal government from a union hijacking.

33 thoughts on “SA’s November Challenge: Defeating Fire Union’s Charter Amendments

  1. Yes, I signed the petitions. Yes, it would have made a difference if I’d known that the woman who approached me was hired to collect my signature and not a volunteer (as I naively assumed). Yes, I signed the petitions because it always seems like a good thing to me to let the voters decide. But, no, I’m not convinced that the propositions will lead to the democratic apocalypse, as inferred by you and other opponents.

    You have raised some good points that have me concerned about what is really behind all of this. If the union’s strategies do not reflect the rank and file firefighters, why are we not hearing from them? What do they really think?

    Thanks for elevating the issue–you have me thinking twice about the whole hot mess.

  2. I mostly agree with your analysis except for one thing: the paid sick leave ordinance. If City Council passes it now, it will impede the business community’s support against the charter amendments. Defer paid sick leave for the next round of municipal elections so it doesn’t muddy the waters of defeating the union’s efforts to cripple the city.

  3. I do not know how I will vote on these charter amendments.

    I will say that the fire union has done a good job of appealing to the populist side of most voters. Many perceive the City Council as an insiders’ club, so asking for the citizens to approve or disapprove referendums that affect the average Joe’s pocket book is an effective strategy. And while Sculley may deserve her pay, based on the city’s stellar bond rating, many look on in disbelief, or maybe envy, that someone can draw that kind of salary when you have workers in retail, health care, and education forced to take two or three part-time gigs to stitch together a decent living. Finally, in any kind of negotiation, both sides are going to search out representatives sympathetic to their views. That is natural.

    The argument that outside agitators are infiltrating the unions is an old one that states’ rights Dixiecrats used in the 1960s to stir up class and racial resentments. I am not sure how convincing that approach will be in 2018 in San Antonio with its 60-70% Hispanic population. The problem is not the length of time or number of signatures, which is what the amendment is about, but with vetting the invalid petitions themselves.

    The union also has this ace up its sleeve, one not mentioned in this commentary: the evergreen clause—the City now wants to renege on the very agreement it signed to keep the current union contract the way it is for ten years. This strikes many voters as unfair. Just because the costs of health care have skyrocketed since the contract was signed, many do not think it is right to take away what they, the firefighters and City, already litigated.

    These charters are about pitting one group against another. Instead, I wish there was a charter on expanding health care for all, protecting everyone’s retirement funds, and guaranteeing a living wage of all. Those three I would vote for.

  4. I understand this is your opinion but it it so BIASED toward Sculley and the Mayor. What has happened to the media being objective?
    As a voter I am glad to have the opportunity to let the council know when they have over stepped their jobs which is to run this City not inflict their politics in our lives!

  5. Excellent article!

    The union’s 10 year evergreen clause is utterly absurd. How can the firefighters rationalize having a completely different contract then the police officers?

    The extreme brilliance of mayor Hardberger for hiring Sheryl Scully. We are extremely fortunate to have her as city manager.

  6. Great job Mr. Rivard! You “hit-the-nail-on-the-head” on what the Fire Fighters Union’s real intent. The SA Business Community is all over this, educating owners, employees, friends, neighbors and all who have “common sense” this is wrong and will be devastating to SA if passed. Keep up the good work, we will too! Last comment, we all revere our Fire Fighters and Police, but we need to be fiscally smart to sustain their benefits.

  7. It’s my understanding that SAFD has the lowest entry requirements when compared to Houston and Dallas FD’s. SAFD will accept a GED.
    Unbelievable, free medical insurance for their entire career. Must be nice.

  8. I appreciate and read the Rivatd Report! However the Rivard Report has no business being unbiased and injecting their opinion in how The City of San Antonio votes! The city of San Antonio is smarter than you give us credit for sir! I am going to vote yes because despite some of the interesting parts brought up in this article the city is corrupt with a very few having a tremendous say in what happens in this city. The city is growing beyond anybody’s control and this is not a good thing but destroying what used 5o be a well mannered town. sculley has too much power too more than the mayor and she is quite untouchable and way over paid! Why is it that her vote has passed may topics that have been tabled for good reason! More discussion is needed but that has become a thing of the past because city hall wants no discourse. I must say SAisd is following suit by having a dictator in Pablo Martinez. Our local govt has become a dictatorship and ths has got to stop! Vote yes!!!!!!!! I don’t believe the media on this case just like I don’t trust national media!!!!

  9. Seems The Rivard Report should report only the news and facts and not take sides–otherwise, as has become the norm, journalism simply is another biased opinion and not true journalism. Wish Rivard would simply report on the facts regardless of what outcome or impression is perceived. Let the readers make decisions. Also, Unions have served their purpose in the 50s, 60, and 70s when such groups helped make laws to protect employees. In today’s age where employee laws are abundant, and mostly fair, it’s time to dissolve unions. Look at the local major unions in town: Police/Fire, SAISD/School District, SA Symphony–and if you Google ANY article on any of these organizations for any period, it’s always a problem, problem, problem that they are causing. And if you look at issues they argued against years back, you’ll see nothing was as disastrous as they claimed at the time. Shelley Potter has been in her SAISD Union how many decades now? SA Symphony has had same Union reps for how many decades now? Rivard–write an article on Unions and their efficacy–or lack thereof. Thank the Texas Legislature for now passing a law that does not require a person to pay dues if they choose not to join a union and still receive the same benefits of membership. For the record, I will vote against these propositions as I agree that they are simply vengeance rather than true change for the better, but let’s now focus on minimizing the power of these useless organizations that only serve to disrupt the organizations they purport to protect. And thank you first responders (genuinely) for your work–that’s what you signed up for and that’s your job; we appreciate it very much, but you also have choices in careers if you’re not happy.

  10. Rivard, once again you have shown your bias against organized labor.
    The fact that you, local businesses and the mayor oppose the amendments is my signal to vote YES!
    The people of San Antonio are tired of capitalist control over the City!

  11. We can’t get our city residents to vote on issues now, I fail to see how that would change in the future if the prop #1 passes. Complete areas of San Antonio rely on their councilperson to represent their interests and they may end up with even less voice than they have now. And I guess we will no longer need a mayor or council since everything can go to a vote by the people, at least the ones interested, who vote.
    I have lived here for over 30 years and you know, as I do, there are many different people represented in San Antonio. People who get involved, people who work all the time just to survive, people who are not well educated and don’t vote for fear of making a mistake, people who vote without the details needed to make the best decision, and people who believe their vote doesn’t matter.
    We need to trust the people we elected and if they don’t do the right job for your district, vote someone else in. That’s democracy.

  12. Please list the mayor and members of city council who approved (assuming it was them) the Evergreen clause. Also, what sparked the contentious relationship between the union and the city?

  13. Regarding Prop 3 — I tell my kids I learned all I need to know on the sports field. If Robinson or Duncan were limited to a multiple of the lowest paid player, we would have lost them at his first opportunity to leave, and the Spurs would not have been the dynasty we enjoyed. If Pop had been term limited we would not likely have had 20 years of 50 win seasons. San Antonio is on an enviable trajectory — Don’t reverse it in November.

    • ….every NBA player is limited to a multiple of the lowest paid player, that’s what a Max Contract is. The difference is that EVERY team and player in the NBA is subject to that rule which would not be the case in regards to pay for a city manager.

    • I think you meant to say “a corrupt union”. There are multiple articles detailing Steele’s corrupt tactics – I encourage you to read them.

      • Stella, no, I meant corrupt City government(governance). Now, over 10 years ago, a mistake was made to include the evergreen clause, and when it expired, the City “forgot” to take it out when the contract was renewed, so they are trying to weasel their way out. Aside from the firefighter union – or any union, like TD Roosevelt once said, no need for unions, the government belongs to the people, via VOTE. And to Brielle, it is reported Houston also has AAA rating. AAA rating really means nothing because the economy of SA is so good right now, any investor, will buy our bonds, even at a higher interest/lower yield. If you voted on the bond, did you really know exactly what it would be used for? Yes, you blindly voted on a bond that uses hidden corrupt methods to do with those bond funds what the City really wants to. Hence, this is why there is so much drive to pump up downtown so the City can find more revenue through “special assessments” to decrease the cost of all the tax incentives given to developers. Examples of special assessments include the rental bikes or scooters in the brand new wider bicycle shared sidewalks and increase in City owned parking garages and parking lots rates! All this hype begs the question, doesn’t the government belong to the people? There is also a need to vote and pay closer attention to who you elect, especially in District 1 – downtown! and for the Mayor, and any other elected official in the pockets of the political pusher arena!

          • don’t know what you are driving at, enlighten me, if I used a wrong choice of words.

        • I guess you don’t know how bonds work. Let me educate you – If the city loses its AAA rating, it will need to pay a higher interest rate on its debt. That’s money out the door. As of last year the city had $3.5B in debt outstanding (yes, that’s a B), and a drop of just one rating level could cost the city an extra $20M in interest expense. And no, Houston does not have a AAA rating. This is easily verifiable through a quick google search.

  14. This is more of a referendum on city leadership-which is seen as out of control , an elite club helping other elites, ignoring the average taxpayer, skirting the city charter with non-profits run by city council members to do the bidding of special interests with no oversight or accountability to the public…they feel they are untouchable…whatever the outcome I hope they take a look at themselves from the vantage point of the average citizen.

  15. Truly did NOT appreciate your biased opinion on this topic…as you are obviously “Team Sculley”
    Perhaps you should reach out to your local fire station & ask their thoughts on this topic & share that article on the RR!!! It’s only FAIR we hear both sides!

  16. When will the city realize the fd is bloated. We don’t need so many firemen as 80 pc of calls are ems. Every ambulance goes out with a fire engine. Why? Get rid of the dept and start all over.

    As for prop 3, why not? Sure there will be tons of referenda and the voters will be easily swayed. But is that different than the city council that approves every cockamamie idea that is a feel good measure. Like Tobacco 21.

    • while you are at it, there are many bloated departments within City employment . The City even hired outside auditor to tell them if job performances were necessary, and I haven’t seen any cuts in those bloated departments yet, just tax payer monies spent to hire the auditors.

  17. Rivard, if you were doing your job or if you were a True Journalist or if you had any INTEGRITY, you would present BOTH SIDES OF THIS ISSUE and keep your personal opinion out of it.

  18. ” GO VOTE NO” is a bumper Sticker? Where can I get one! I will buy one if funds go to anti-Charter III amendments.
    Definitely, Council needs to take no action on Sick Leave proposal Aug 16, then this will push this charter amendment to May 2019.

  19. Mr Rivard, I first have to agree with you about voting down the petitions. If people don’t like the way their city council member is voting they can express their disapproval every two years. That being said, I think your article leaves out a couple of things. For example, you mention the union has to agree to the arbitrator but fail to mention the City does too, so the same argument could be made that arbitrator’s who go against the City won’t get work. In addition, I believe arbitration is found in Chapter 143 of the Civil Service code, so while the specifics of the process are in the CBA the right to arbitration is state law. You also ask if any male city manager has been subjected to attacks like Ms. Sculley. Has any male city manager sued the fire and police associations before? Made some of the decisons the current city manager has made? Just because you don’t like someone who is female, doesn’t mean you don’t like her because she is female. Maybe you just don’t like her performance.

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