San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele listens to questions from reporters following the press conference.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele wears a fake uniform while speaking during a press conference at Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters September 20. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I’ll be honest. I don’t know if the three proposed charter changes the firefighters union has put on next month’s ballot will be as bad for San Antonio as the mayor and other leaders say.

But I do know this: If voters pass those measures, they will make Chris Steele, the fire union chief, one of the most powerful men in San Antonio.

Almost as powerful as Harold Flammia.

Many of you may not know Flammia because you are too young or you came here in the past 25 years. After all, Flammia has been quiet since returning from federal prison in the early 2000s.

But Flammia was a historic figure in San Antonio, and he was one tough dude. Having nearly died from bullet wounds sustained in a shootout with a burglar he had cornered, he recovered to be elected police union president in 1985. At the time, San Antonio Police Department officers ranked a pathetic 30th in pay – not in the nation, but in Texas.

Flammia built his power base the old-fashioned way. He persuaded members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association to make political action committee dues mandatory and eventually quadrupled them. At one point, the union’s PAC was the largest contributor to the mayor and City Council.

He built up one of the city’s most effective phone banks and one of its best data sets of voter information. Friendly politicians were given access to the data, and unfriendly politicians were targeted by the phone banks.

Flammia was so pugnacious a union leader that citizens who filed official complaints about excessive force could find themselves sued for slander.

In 1988, Flammia negotiated the richest labor contract in Texas. Not only were the officers well-paid, they also received gold-plated health insurance coverage with no deductibles or copays for them or their families.

Most revolutionary was a new retirement health insurance scheme in which each officer would pay $50 a month (offset by a new $50 monthly “uniform allowance”) and the City $67 a month, for which the officers could retire with the same no-cost health insurance they and their families had while working.

Here’s how much clout Flammia had at City Hall: The City Council passed the contract with only one dissenting vote. The next agenda item was to order up an actuarial study on whether the $117 per month per employee were enough to pay for lifetime medical benefits for employees who could retire after 20 years. The actuarial study found that the fund was underfunded by about 40 percent, or about $107 million over the first 20 years.

The contract included numerous other frills – too many to cover here – but one led to Flammia’s troubles with the law.

The contract provided for a new fund to provide non-work-related legal benefits for the police officers. It covered wills, real estate matters, divorces, and so on. The fund was so lucrative that it enabled the law firm that won the contract to pay Flammia more than $500,000 in bribes over the next few years. That earned him a four-and-a-half year federal prison sentence.

With the infamous 1988 contract and subsequent ones, the firefighters union was given “me too” contracts. Without making all the political contributions and maintaining the phone bank and voter lists, firefighters were awarded the same pay and benefits – including the super-rich retirement health plan. In other words, they rode on the power that Flammia had created.

Although the police union did quite well on its most recent labor contract, Steele and his firefighters union has not gone along. Instead, he has originated a new form of political clout. You might call it political extortion.

Steele had tried conventional politics. He and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association endorsed former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s mayoral bid in 2015. That may have backfired, helping Ivy Taylor carry conservatives on the North Side and win a tight runoff with Van de Putte. Then in 2017, Steele and his union endorsed Manuel Medina, the Democratic county chairman who ran as a Trumpian Republican. He got 15 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the union found it was more successful attacking City programs. In 2014, it joined a petition drive against an expensive downtown streetcar project. The petition drive succeeded, and Taylor joined County Judge Nelson Wolff in pulling the plug on the widely unpopular project. In 2016, the union came out against the Vista Ridge water pipeline project, but this time, it lost.

Now Steele and the union are taking the strategy further. They’re not targeting the political establishment’s projects. They’re targeting its power by seeking to change the City charter that gives City officials power.

One proposal would make it nearly four times as easy for citizens to gather petitions to overturn city ordinances, changing the number of signatures needed for a referendum to reverse an ordinance from more than 70,000 to 20,000 while changing the time available to collect those signatures from 40 days to 180 days.

It also would give voters the ability to overturn actions that are currently not subject to referendums – including zoning decisions, tax hikes, and even rate hikes by CPS Energy and SAWS.

To be so easily able to second-guess the City’s elected officials is a direct assault on their power.

Another amendment would target the city manager, who under the City’s charter has huge power. Sheryl Sculley flexed that power skillfully by persuading the Council to take on the issue of the police and fire medical benefits. The battle became personal.

So Steele has proposed limiting the manager’s pay to 10 times that of the lowest-paid city worker, or about $300,000. Sculley made $550,000 last year, including a bonus. It would also limit her now unlimited tenure to eight years.

As Steele points out, Sculley’s pay is more than that of the U.S. president and Texas governor combined, but it is also less than one-tenth of that of the average CEO of a corporation with the City of San Antonio’s revenue and workforce.

Ironically, Sculley is “grandmothered” and would be unaffected by these provisions. But they likely would significantly hamper City Council’s ability to recruit and retain top talent to replace her when the time comes.

Steele maintains that the union is engaged in a civic promotion of good government, working for a more democratic and open city. As if it was the League of Women Voters.

But he must know that if he spent more than a half-million dollars of his members’ dues to hire an out-of-town company to gather the signatures to put these populist amendments on the ballot without significant benefit to themselves, he would not be union president much longer.

No, this isn’t about reforms. It’s about letting the mayor and City Council know that the union can cause them a barrel of trouble if they don’t cave in the future.

It won’t make Steele as powerful as Harold Flammia, who literally held court in a room behind council chambers during council meetings. But it will make him far more powerful than any fire union chief has ever been.

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.