Firefighters union official Stephen Moody and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez debated the merits of three local ballot propositions to change San Antonio’s city charter in a discussion Tuesday night.
The concept of trust in San Antonio’s government emerged as a key theme of the talk, which was organized by Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) at the Alicia Trevino Lopez Senior One-Stop Center in northwest San Antonio.
“We have trust those people that represent us,” said Perez, whose organization opposes all three propositions. “I trust City government.”
Moody, who is a member of the union’s legislative committee, told the audience of about 60 that how to vote on Nov. 6 depends on individual viewpoints.
“It comes down to who do you trust to make decisions for your life?” Moody said. “If you trust the government, then you probably need to vote no. But if you don’t trust the government, then you need to vote yes.”
If approved, Proposition A would relax requirements for and expand the scope of future ballot initiatives aimed at challenging City Council decisions; Proposition B would limit the tenure of future city managers – but not current City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s – to eight years and their compensation to no more than 10 times that of the lowest-paid full-time City employee; and Proposition C would allow the fire union to force binding arbitration with the City for a new labor contract, which dictates wages, raises, health care premiums, and more.
Most City leaders and the Go Vote No campaign call the propositions “dangerous” because they would create ballot chaos that would ultimately cost the City billions. The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, which led a petition drive to get the measures on the ballot, and its associated San Antonio First/Approved by Citizens campaign say the propositions are aimed at fixing a corrupt system and that the potential negative financial impacts on the City are overstated.
The proposition effort stems from 2014 when the firefighters union joined a successful petition drive with other community groups against a proposed downtown streetcar project, Moody said. Voters later approved a charter amendment that subjects all future streetcar and light rail projects to a public vote.
“Out of that came a coalition,” Moody said. They called a meeting and sorted out “what can we do next?”
People opposed to the Vista Ridge water pipeline and other controversial project issues backed Propositions A and B to give voters a “voice at City Council” and “get rid of Sheryl [Sculley],” Moody said. “Prop C is all about us.”
The Go Vote No campaign contends that all three propositions would work to give the union – and its president, Chris Steele – more power over City Hall.
“It’s all about an ax that they have to grind,” Perez said. “San Antonio is one of the best-run cities in the entire nation” and each of these propositions threatens that status.
The city isn’t perfect, Perez said, but it’s a better place because of the job Sculley has done. “She’s tough as nails, but she is smart and she is fair,” he said.
Sculley would not be impacted by Proposition B, Perez said. The city manager position is appointed and not subject to a traditional contract – though Sculley can negotiate raises and other terms. If City Council is unhappy with her work, Council members can fire her with a majority vote.
But Moody pointed to a recent list of Best- and Worst-Run Cities compiled by personal finance website Wallethub that ranked San Antonio 99th among the 150 largest U.S. cities. Despite the ranking, Moody said, Sculley is one of the highest-paid city managers in the nation. She earned $550,000 last year, including a bonus.
“If you’re 99th and you’re the highest-paid, there’s a serious problem there,” Moody said.
“Internet surveys like this one should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of government and public affairs in an email. “For example, WalletHub includes in its methodology high school graduation rates and the number of hospital beds, which are metrics clearly outside of the reach of city government. And WalletHub’s top-ranked cities – places such as Nampa, Idaho; Provo, Utah; and Missoula, Montana – don’t have nearly the same challenges and complexities of a major metropolitan city like San Antonio.”
The City points to its top bond rating, AAA, from all three of the major credit-rating agencies, as a better metric for city management. San Antonio first achieved the rating in 2008, three years after Sculley became city manager, and has maintained it.
Perez cited a City-commissioned economic impact report on the propositions that was completed earlier this year by Steve Nivin, director of the SABÉR Research Institute and an associate professor of economics at St. Mary’s University.
The report details how an uncertain business and legislative climate, such as one that would be created by the passage of the proposed changes to the city charter, would likely result in a lower bond rating for the City. That could cost it between $382.3 million and $4.2 billion over 20 years as a result of slower economic growth and higher interest payments on loans.
Moody called into question the legitimacy of the report, because Nivin is routinely hired by the City to complete economic impact reports. “[This report] is biased from the get-go,” Moody said.
Just because someone performs contract work for the City, it “doesn’t mean he is dishonest,” Perez responded, noting that the City works with contractors in almost all industry sectors.