The newly formed San Antonio City Council meet for the first time in A-Session after the June elections.
San Antonio City Council members are allowed seven full-time staffers and one or two part-timers. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A letter last week from a lawyer to San Antonio’s mayor, City Council, and city attorney on behalf of an anonymous group of council staff members shows the stark obsolescence of San Antonio’s nearly 70-year-old city charter. 

Because of the city charter, City Council staff have been City Hall’s stepchildren. The best of them work long hours at less pay and lower benefits than their colleagues who work for the city manager. Duties often include long days capped by attending neighborhood meetings at night to represent the council member, yet council staff don’t receive overtime pay.

They also receive inferior health care and retirement benefits, although in recent years City Council has voted pay and benefit increases. Each council member is allowed seven full-time staffers and one or two part-timers. The mayor has eight authorized slots.

The pay is not bad. Each council member has a chief of staff who earns around $90,000 annually. Most the other staffers are in the $40,000 and $50,000 range. But most would be making more for similar work within the official City staff. In addition, the City pays $400 monthly toward health insurance for them and matches retirement savings with 2-to-1 match, but with a cap of $2,000 in employee contributions. 

Why separate and unequal status for council staff? Partly because when the City Charter was passed in 1951, there was no thought that there would be council staff. The charter was part of a national reform movement giving power to city managers and taking it away from elected officials. The rather naive notion, inspired by municipal corruption scandals around the nation, was that they would remove politics from City Hall. Many of the scandals involved patronage and payrolls padded with no-show or phantom jobs.

So the charter gives, with few exceptions, all hiring decisions to the city manager, or to department heads designated by the manager. The language limiting political influence is clear and strong.

“Members of the council shall not direct or request the city manager or any subordinate of the city manager to appoint to or remove from office or employment, or in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers or employees in the administrative service of the city, except for the purpose of inquiry.

“The council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the city manager and neither the council nor any member of council shall give orders to any subordinates of the city manager, either publicly or privately.” 

And any council member who breaks that rule, who asks for an individual City employee to be fired, or who directly gives orders to any City staff member faces severe consequences. At least in theory.

“Any violation of the foregoing provisions by any member of the council shall constitute official misconduct, and shall authorize the council by a vote of two-thirds of its entire membership to expel such offending member, if found guilty after a public hearing, and declare the office vacant ….”

These strict rules weren’t a problem for the first quarter of a century, when all nine members of the council were elected city-wide and really did function on the corporate model the charter laid out. They met once a week, earned $20 for showing up, and voted on matters put forward by the city manager.

As late as 1975, the council staff consisted of a single secretary, a petite, friendly woman named Barbie Hernandez. By her own admission, she was underworked.

All this changed in 1977 when the charter was amended to elect 10 members each from a single district and the mayor city-wide.

The impact wasn’t immediate. When I met Hernandez in 1977 she was secretary for two council members, one of them the young, ambitious Henry Cisneros. She was no longer underworked. The members had no other staff.

Over the years, two things changed. One was that citizens learned that when they had neighborhood problems they had their own council member to call. When they were represented by all nine members, they didn’t know whom to call. The constituent services aspect of council work ballooned.

The other change was that the city also ballooned. At almost 1.6 million it is now nearly four times the size it was when the charter was passed. The average council member has one and a half times as many constituents as presidential candidate Mayor Pete.

What’s more, the city became a far more complex organism. Council members must not only take care of constituent needs, but also educate themselves on a wide range of urgent issues and broker competing legitimate demands from a broad range of groups. 

So at some point the council decided to allocate money for staffs of their own choosing, not provided by the city manager. Under the charter, they had to hire those as so-called independent contractors, not as City staff. 

Yet if a lawsuit that is implied by their lawyer’s letter last week is filed, there is a chance that under federal law, the council staff will be found to be employees, not contractors. These regulations exist to keep unscrupulous employers from cheating their employees out of overtime and other benefits. The City could be responsible for years of overtime and other costs.

Through the years, the unambiguous words of the charter have not always been followed. You will be forgiven if you believe that making Mayor Phil Hardberger’s campaign manager, then first Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard, San Antonio’s city attorney was purely the city manager’s idea.

Similarly, Mayor Ron Nirenberg clearly chose Jim Greenwood as his chief of staff and Bruce Davidson as his press secretary, despite the fact that those two positions are classified as City staff, providing the larger salary and better benefits that the demands of holding those jobs for the entire city require. And Nirenberg does not go through the city manager to give directions to Greenwood and Davidson, as the charter requires.

But it is one thing for the mayor to bend the charter for a few key employees. It’s another for scores of employees to be employed in violation of the charter.

The reality is that today’s demands on city government make some parts of the nearly 70-year-old charter unrealistic. The mayor and council need to do more than show up on Thursdays and vote. There are problems and policy issues for today and 10 years from now that cannot be left to a city manager whose main focus must be the huge task of running the day-to-day operations. 

The mayor will soon appoint another charter revision commission, aiming for a charter amendment election in May 2021. That commission should look at bringing the council staffs in from the cold. 

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.