San Antonio’s Choice: Thriving City or Government by Union Petition

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The Frost Tower is nearing completion and is set for a Summer '19 opening.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Frost Tower at dusk.

Some of the best years in a 37-year marriage were when our two sons decided to return to San Antonio as young professionals drawn home by the forward trajectory of the city.

They came home to a very different city. They had left to pursue higher education and the kind of opportunities more easily found beyond this city’s limits. Fast forward a decade: San Antonio’s fast-growing economy, the city’s livability, and the opportunity to be part of its evolution proved irresistible. Today both young men are urban core homeowners, civically active, and part of the city’s very visible forward momentum.

Nowhere was that momentum more on display than Tech Bloc’s boisterous rally Thursday night at Southerleigh Brewery at the Pearl, where 1,300-plus people gathered to pledge their votes against the three charter measures muscled on to the Nov. 6 ballot by the firefighters union and their out-of-town paid petition peddlers.

Passage of any of those measures could bring San Antonio’s momentum to an ugly stop. Our children could stop coming home in droves.

I’ve been to my fair share of political rallies, including impressive gatherings for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, but I haven’t seen 1,300 people at any of them. Transport that Tech Bloc energy and passion to the polls, friends, and the city won’t miss a step in its continuing progress.

Consider this: Through my work here at the Rivard Report over the past six years I have come to know, or least meet, most of the people at the Tech Bloc rally. The majority of them are employed in good-paying tech jobs that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Tech Bloc, only 3 years old, has become a force to reckon with in the city. Its power? Smart job creation.

Last week I also cycled by the former Rivard Report offices at the historic Rand Building – you know, the one where the name “Geekdom”  now beckons from the rooftop. It was my weekly check-in on the gleaming new Frost Tower and other downtown improvements. Workers at the controls of skid loaders were moving dirt near the tower’s main entrance, preparing the ground for landscaping. By next summer workers will walk through that landscaping into their new offices.

The Rand building on East Houston Street prominently features the Geekdom logo.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Rand building on East Houston Street prominently features the Geekdom logo.

(No time to pedal by yourself? Visit remotely via the Frost Tower’s Construction Cam.)

Houston Street, the city’s most walkable downtown thoroughfare, was also downtown’s deadest street a decade ago – a collection of vacant buildings, empty storefronts,  a museum to yesteryear, save for a few hotels and steakhouses catering to visitors.

Houston Street now is a bustling boulevard, its historic buildings teeming with tech workers, small businesses, startups, and cool places to gather, eat, and drink. That gleaming tower at 111 W. Houston St. serves as the symbol of all that smart job growth and the promise of so much more just over the horizon. At the rate San Antonio is growing, there probably will be another new gleaming tower downtown before too long, joining the multiple towers coming to River North along Broadway.

All of that – the private-public partnership that made possible a new Frost Tower and kept the venerable bank’s headquarters downtown, Southerleigh, the Pearl, the thousands of apartments that reach from Broadway south to the Mission Reach, might not be here if 20,000 anti-government people had signed petitions blocking the project incentives approved by past City Councils.

I am not suggesting this billion-dollar development surge would not have happened, but I am saying all such future projects will be at-risk if union bosses decide it’s time to bloody a few noses at City Hall. The merits of any given project will not be a factor; landing a sucker punch will be the aim.

It took vision, risk, and significant collaboration between City Hall and the private sector to usher in what then-Mayor Julián Castro called the Decade of Downtown and others have called “a city on the rise.”

Of course, the city has grown just as robustly or more to the northwest. More smart jobs have been created in the Medical Center, for example, than downtown. UTSA is moving into the future at an exciting pace. That growth has occurred in no small part to the City’s elected leaders and professionals and the social peace that allows them to act in the best interest of all citizens.

It’s what brought our sons home. Maybe your children, too. Maybe it will keep your children from leaving.

By now, you’d have to be a friend, family member, or a very loyal dues-paying firefighter to believe union President Chris Steele is a trustworthy leader with the best interests of San Antonio and its people in mind.

A win for the union at all costs is his only goal. He seems willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Secretly leaked tapes that come from the ranks of firefighters and a partial release of Steele’s personnel files and law enforcement records paint an unflattering portrait of a man who lacks the character or intellect for leadership.

Voters have eight days now to the start of early voting in the Nov. 6 election. It wouldn’t surprise me this year to see the early vote approach or surpass 70 percent of the total. Eight days should be enough time to weigh the facts and conclude that the three charter reform measures on the ballot are meant to damage San Antonio. They are the product of backroom political scheming rather than civic aspiration.

Do we really want to elect leaders and then turn around every time a decision is rendered and challenge it with a petition and election at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars? Do we want to live in a city with a paralyzed City Council, our city the object of national ridicule?

The average citizen might not appreciate the relationship between a city’s tax base and its economic development. It will be a much easier concept to grasp if the City no longer has the funds to fix roads and fill potholes, build sidewalks, mitigate flooding, keep up parks, and fund libraries.

There is no reason to learn that lesson the hard way. A no vote, times three, come Oct. 22, will send a message: San Antonio’s remarkable growth of the past decade will continue apace. Our faith and trust in elected leaders and our institutions should trump union machinations. Voters should choose continued prosperity over political arson.

42 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Choice: Thriving City or Government by Union Petition

  1. Thriving? For who? San Antonio has a very large number of people in poverty. We have a crisis in unaffordable housing along with gentrification. We have 16 separate and unequal school districts thus denying inner city children mostly Black and Brown equal education.
    The same forces that caused all this are pushing to Vote No. Apparently they wish to remain in control of our community.
    I am a retired union member and I proudly stand with the Firefighters!

  2. Voting YES will be sooo backwards. The City Council, our elected officials, are there to represent us and make decisions on behalf of us. The union is in this to grab more power and impose its will to entire city. Vote NO for a better future.

    • You are soooo naive! Since when has the CC made decisions on the behalf of average citizens? Developers have imposed their will on the entire city for the past 200 years. So, sure why not! Let’s have the union impose its will on the city.

      Are you afraid of change? I’m not! Let move forward!

      • Aren’t CC members elected by the citizens? Of course they represent us. What about the union? Who does it represent? Why would I choose union over CC? Even though I see your point on developers issue, I still can’t see the point to support the propositions.

        • Firefighters fight fires. And Unions just make it hard for a lazy firefighter to get fired. Why should a firefighters union run a city? That seems so absurd! Why not have the steelworkers union run the city? Or the teachers union?

  3. The class war is on! Those that have have never wanted for us that have not to gain political power.
    Mr. Sager spelled it out very clearly above. Robert Rivard knows it too, that’s why he opposes the referendum.

  4. Prop A just becomes government by special interest. It is cloaking special interest in a soundbite of democracy, but it is 100% government by special interests.

    Prop C means the City will just lay off its hourly employees and outsource those jobs. Formerly good jobs with solid benefits will disappear – for those at the bottom of the pay scale. This is just the best paid (fire employees) hurting the lowest paid. Unbelievably selfish.

  5. Thank you, Rivard. After listening to the Chamber of Commerce president talking on TPR, seeing Patty Radle’s Facebook commentary, and reading this editorial, I have definitely decided to VOTE YES on this charter amendments! (Yes, I said YES!!!)

    In this case, the best decision that can be made by an average citizen is to see how those who support powerbrokers, charter schools from NY, and developers, are pushing the “common folk” to vote.

    So thanks so much..all of you for clarifying the matter for me. Can anyone drop off a sign to this effect for my yard?

  6. This article has made a point I have been trying to make. CITY HALL IS CONTROLLED BY DEVELOPERS AND CITY HALL INSIDERS.

    I support all 3 propositions A.B.C. City Hall has been controlled for decades by city hall insiders, millionaires developers funding the no campaign.

    Prop A. Will bring restrain and accountability to city hall. This will happen because they will know any gross decision they make and not in the best interest of our community can be challenged and reverse by the voters.

    Prop. B, I will also vote YES. The current unlimited employment of our city managers has created to much power in that position. The salary of $50,000 per month is a completely out of line in a San Antonio wage market.

    Prop C. Is also good to help re-negotiate a firefighters contract that is long overdue. A 3rd party arbitrator that the prop. will approve is good for both sides.

    Vote Yes and do not allow the fear-mongering and misinformation to change your decision and your power to control our government.

    • Prop A: You can ALREADY DO THIS with 10% of registered voters.

      Prop B: If you can show me that the city manager makes too much money relative to her private sector peers (i.e., people who have 1200+ employees and oversee a ~$3 billion budget), I’ll change my mind on it. Until then, well, if you want to compete for the best qualified candidates, you need to pay them like they’re the best qualified candidates.

      Prop C: To be clear, this is not just for renegotiating the current contract. It allows the union to UNILATERALLY declare an impasse and go to arbitration at any time, for any reason. Instead of forcing the union and firefighters to act like adults and come to the table, it allows the union to go cry to an arbitrator (forcing the city to pony up taxpayer dollars to play along) WHENEVER they feel like it.

      Vote NO, unless you think it’s a great idea to burn down your entire house to get rid of a few rats.

      • I would recommend looking at the president of the US salary and realize no city manager in the country is worth more than the president,

      • I’ve been studying this issue hard. Good arguments on both sides. But Bob makes the most sense. I don’t care how much money people make as long as the job is being done. I moved here 10 years ago. I coulda moved anywhere in the country. I chose SA because of what it is. It’s a special Texas city that was booming then. And its booming now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it ain’t broke, leave it alone.

        The firefighters Union is not happy. But shame on them for tacking on two more propositions to confuse the taxpayers.

        Vote NO!

  7. Read the article about ‘Affordable’ housing in today’s EN. It’s eye-opening to see just how much CC is run by developers…and how CC doesn’t think ahead in developing plans for growth. Do we really need to give tax breaks and incentives to developers who are building apts that run at $3.00 per sq ft when the average in SA is $1.15 per sq ft? Whose side is CC on? Certainly not the taxpayer! CC needs to be held accountable…hard to do when all the board members of city non-profits are…you guessed it—CC members!

  8. I am going to dissent as well and actually vote yes on the props. It’s really a smart move for us. If you look at Austin & San Francisco they have similar amendments already in place. Since that is the future I want this city to be I am voting YES.

  9. Because California is a referendum state, like Prop. A is proposing, there are 282 pages of propositions on the Nov. ballot. Is that what you want? 20,000 signatures, 3% of the current SA population, will be able to put a proposition on a ballot that could change ANYTHING. VOTE NO on a,b and c.

  10. Thank you, Mr, Rivard, once again, for your insightful analysis, always well studied and laid out news content
    The sounding responses from all are important to review.
    Repectfull, infomed discourse remains paramount as we move toward voting day.

  11. I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
    I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
    And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
    Clowns to the left of me,
    Jokers to the right, here I am,
    Stuck in the middle with you

  12. I’ve been following these issues very closely and trying my absolute best to remain objective. While I don’t always agree with union tactics, there is something missing from the the “Vote No” campaign. I also listened to the Chamber president’s interview on TPR, as well as the mayor’s interview on TPR a couple of weeks ago, and as I listened very intently to both (as well as callers’ questions), it became very apparent to me there is nothing concrete in the “Vote No” message.

    The crux of the “Vote No” message hinges on speculative rhetoric designed to induce fear in those who will not look deeper into the issues, or can’t, due to time constraints of life. The “Vote No” campaign has put all of its proverbial eggs in the basket of AAA bond ratings and a speculative “what if” report from a local economist with ties to city government. I have read the report (I
    encourage others to do so) and it is chock full of “what could happen” scenarios, and very short on facts of what “will happen”.

    These are tactics right out of the playbook, which is to capitalize on a low turnout electorate by releasing a fictional report full of “could happen” scenarios in attempts to scare those who normally do not vote or don’t really follow issues very closely. Why do you think the “Vote No” team, which Mr. Rivard is a proud member of, keeps speaking of record setting turnout at the polls? The 11-13% that turnout to vote contains 8-10% that have there minds made up no matter the topic, it’s the 2-3 % (20,000 votes) that pass propositions.

    While I do believe Chris Steele is misguided and not qualified to lead the SAFD union, I also believe that Sheryl Sculley has become MUCH too powerful in city government. There is absolutely no reason for a city manager, or council member for that matter, to be a member of every board imaginable such as the Chamber of Commerce, CPS, Express News, Urban Land Advisory Board, Haven for Hope, just to name a few. Do you see where I’m headed with this?

    This is not about personal attacks, even though both camps have made it that way. Chris Steele goes after Sculley, then the media (including RR) goes after Steele with mystery recordings and Steele’s SAFD personnel and law enforcement records, both ironically posted on the RR. This is not about personalties, it’s about misleading and scaring the 20,000-30,000 people who are going to decide the fate of these propositions.

    I challenge everyone over the next 8 days to really educate yourselves on the FACTS and not get wrapped up in some “doomsday” scenario created by ONE hand picked economist that cannot predict anything. I also appeal to city government and the “Vote No” campaign to stop being disingenuous with the citizens of this city by selling this report as what the mayor termed in his TPR interview as “facts in black and white ink”. The entire “Vote No”message is full of conjecture and endless, old, and stale droning about AAA bond ratings. Show us FACTS not FICTION.

    • Thank you Chubola!!! ^ this 100%
      I have also picked up on this weird doomsday fear tactic from our Mayor and called him on it (no reply that I saw). And also here at Rivard, etc. I was hoping to see the Rivard Report or The Current write a balanced information article pulling in real facts and info from other city governments that allow more people democracy or have a team at the helm, not a single city manager. Portland Oregon is one of those places who allows more citizen involvement through ballot measures. And in my 15 years living there, sure some crazy ideas got on the ballots but instead of doomsday cultist fear coming from the leaders, we had more conversations about it and often the conversation went the way of, vote no on this because it is badly written or is short sited but not that it’s going to summon a she-beast from hell — I want to see an article that isn’t propaganda, this feels really small town to me…and well San Antonio is the biggest small town you will ever know as they say. Thanks for your insights and your thoughts are spot on.

    • Best response to this debate that I’ve read yet!

      “The entire “Vote No”message is full of conjecture and endless, old, and stale droning about AAA bond ratings. Show us FACTS not FICTION.”

      It is fear mongering at its best! And what is infuriating is the lack of any objective reporting on this. The Express-News has clearly become a mouthpiece for the city council’s interest, and that is sad. They should be laying out the facts for the community, not simply writing endless editorials against the propositions.

  13. Chubola’s commentary (hopefully directly above) is excellent.

    Rivard, and the Mayor, and the “Vote No” crowd are using scare tactics instead of evidence.

    Recent comprehensive research in referenda-based outcomes shows the opposite of what they claim regarding special interests. Matsusaka, 2018: “The idea that the deep pockets of businesses allow them to dominate the initiative agenda does not find support in the historical record. To the contrary, the picture is generally consistent with the progressive view that initiatives undercut the power of business interests.”

    That analysis shows that the current Council’s “representative” structure is more prone to being influenced by special interests in a more cost-effective an efficient manner. Basically, the special interests only need to persuade a select group of legislators to enact policy or ordinances supportive of that group.

    I also read the analysis of the potential impact. The “Vote No” crowd fixates on the worst case number resulting from a theoretical 1.25 percent reduction (due to 1 standard deviation) from…some unknown and undisclosed value.

    The Rivard Report’s numerous columns on the topic are remarkably void of analysis and any single countervailing viewpoint. They are repetitive, opinionated personal attacks. In this column Rivard, again, dismisses any support of these propositions as support for Chris Steele.

    I have stated before that I would support a petition to revoke bargaining rights for the fire union because Chris Steele is a bad faith actor. I do not like Chris Steele’s antics, but neither do I think posting his divorce decree online is “Journalism for a Better San Antonio.”

    I support A, and only A, based on the facts. Not the hyperbolic claims of an unsubstantiated opinion column.

  14. we have city leadership arguing AGAINST more democracy. Can you imagine? This council is activist and wants to remain unaccountable. Of all the problems in SA, was smoking at 19 one of the most pressing? How about a colorful crosswalk?

    Get real, half this city cannot drain properly if we get an inch of rain, poverty is at nation-worst levels, traffic is an absolute joke. Handle the REAL issues, and you won’t have citizens rising up to take that power back from you. We are voting YES in my house.

  15. Voting YES on all 3. All this talk about people moving to San Antonio, while that may be true, the Hill Country is filled with people that left because they were tired of a local government run by ‘insiders’ for their benefit. I believe your comments seem to show that you are ‘out of touch’ with the people that don’t live and work downtown and wouldn’t consider it. City Hall and Council meetings should be moved out of downtown. It is too difficult for the average person to attend meetings.

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