Robin Black (left) speaks with retired fire department Lt. Bert Kuykendall about charters petitions in February 2018.
Robin Black speaks with retired fire Lt. Bert Kuykendall about the fire union's charter petition drive in February 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

People of all political persuasions can agree that local election outcomes are best left in the hands of local voters rather than special interests whose involvement can only be accurately measured after it is too late to matter.

Such is the case in both the City and San Antonio ISD school board elections.

Outside forces, including the firefighters and police unions and a national teachers union, are doing everything they can to bend the May 4 election outcomes to their benefit. While most who vote do so as an act of civic engagement, for the unions, it’s all about electing candidates who will do their bidding, regardless of its impact on taxpayers or the school district.

Early voting resumes Monday and ends at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

A lack of reliable polling – and who trusts polls these days? – means most of us are guessing about the election outcomes at this juncture. My gut tells me that City of San Antonio voters and SAISD voters will support incumbents over challengers and choose the best candidate where there are open seats. Yet passage of two of the three charter amendments on the ballot last November serves as a warning signal that voters can be swayed by negative and misleading campaigning. The charter amendments were the handiwork of outside consultants and the firefighters union, playing off  the populist, anti-status-quo streak running through electoral politics locally and nationally.

Perhaps only one in 10 registered voters will turn out for local elections. Stay home this election at your own risk. Complacency could leave you saddled with unimagined outcomes.

The result of those two approved charter amendments, at least to date, is that longtime City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced her retirement and City Council hired her deputy, Erik Walsh, for about the same salary that departing Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni will earn as the new city manager in Corpus Christi.

San Antonio has a population about five times the size of Corpus Christi, and while Zanoni undoubtedly will see his $300,000 salary climb as he puts his considerable talents to work on the Texas Gulf Coast, Walsh’s pay will stagnate and be based on a multiple of what the City’s lowest wage earners are paid rather than his job performance.

The other result from the two passed charter amendments is that fire union negotiators have only pretended to bargain in good faith with City negotiators while the union leadership pursues its strategy of defeating incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg and replacing him with City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), formerly the union’s paid consultant and the only Council member to support the union’s charter amendments.

Duping people into signing petitions is a lousy way to govern the city, especially when the people behind the initiative do not even live and vote in San Antonio. That brings me back to the initial point of this column: local control.

While almost every early polling site features a firefighter working – some would say badgering – to influence arriving voters, chances are that firefighter lives elsewhere and is not eligible to vote in the mayor’s race. A total of 62 percent, or 1,100 of the city’s 1,773 firefighters, live in other municipalities. As a San Antonio voter, you cannot influence the election in, for example, Converse, home to union President Chris Steele, so why should he and his nonresident allies be able to influence elections in your city?

Public safety unions from around the country are helping the local union campaign against Nirenberg and against incumbent SAISD board President Patti Radle. One attendee at a recent Teach for America-sponsored SAISD candidate forum introduced himself as a retired firefighter from Philadelphia who had traveled here to help work the elections.

As the San Antonio Express-News reported last week, the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation of Teachers Solidarity Fund is distributing mailers in SAISD neighborhoods that lead residents to believe election union candidates will reduce State-mandated testing in the classroom. Control of testing lies with the Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency at the State level. It’s hard to see the mailers as anything other than deliberately and cynically misleading.

Meanwhile, the firefighter and police unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on City elections, although a full accounting will not become available until well after the elections are settled, and even then, we might never know how much outside money flowed into the local unions. Social media smear campaigns and attacks also continue; witness the Instagram advertising posted by the police union I came across last week that we have republished here.

A negative campaign against Mayor Ron Nirenberg paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association is making rounds on social networks.
A negative campaign against Mayor Ron Nirenberg paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association is making rounds on social networks. Credit: Courtesy / Instagram

Something else that might surprise you, especially if you support the union because you believe firefighters deserve better in San Antonio: Many people believe that San Antonio is a uniformly low-wage city, but its public safety public employees are among the highest-paid in the state when comparing pay versus cost of living.

The average San Antonio firefighter earned $97,006.35 in fiscal year 2018, with the median pay at $92,265.67, according to the City’s latest figures, which include all payroll earnings. Subtract the probationary firefighters from the equation and average compensation reaches into the low six figures. Now consider that the unions members and their dependents never have to worry about a copay for a physician visit or pharmacy prescription. A career firefighter can expect to earn a rich pension upon retirement. And union members still have a taxpayer-funded legal slush fund that covers personal travails, like divorces and DWIs.

How many other working class families in San Antonio can point to that kind of annual income, benefits package, and job security?

San Antonio taxpayers have always treated public safety workers with respect and afforded them excellent compensation. Pension and benefits costs, however, have skyrocketed beyond the City’s ability to maintain the status quo. The unions, however, have dug in. Compromise, we have learned, is not a word in the union vocabulary.

Registered voters, of course, are free to exercise their rights and civic duty and turn out at a higher rate than the predicted 10-13 percent and regain control of local elections for City and school board officials, or they can stay home and allow outside forces to influence the elections for their own selfish enrichment.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.