Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele. Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks out against a petition drive being led by the City's firefighters union to amend the City charter in February. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City charter amendment efforts by San Antonio’s firefighters union pose a threat to the City’s governance and its ability to conduct business, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“This is terrible for the city,” said Nirenberg, speaking outside City Hall. “This is terrible for the public, so we’re working on [informing] the public about what a disaster they’ve planned.”

One of the three petitions being circulated by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association aims to cap any future city managers tenure to eight years and their salary to 10 times that of the lowest-paid city employee. Another would force the City and firefighters union to negotiate contracts through binding arbitration should other avenues fail. The third petition would change requirements for citizen-led referendums and give voters a say in passing specific ordinances such as public utility rate increases.

Three petitions went into circulation last week. Union officials are seeking petition signatures near early voting polling sites, Nirenberg said.

The move comes as negotiations for a new contract between the City and firefighters’ union remain at a standstill. The previous contract, which expired in 2014, is currently operating on its evergreen clause.

The petition regarding negotiations would give the union authority to declare an impasse and force the arbitration.

The City sued over the clause, and the Texas Supreme Court may take up the case after the City lost its district court case and appeal. Nirenberg said the City is available for negotiations.

The threat from the petitions, Nirenberg said, is that the changes to the city charter would negatively impact the City’s triple-A bond rating, secured and maintained under City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s tenure.

Sculley, who was paid $450,000 and received a $75,000 performance bonus for 2017, did not attend the press conference. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a frequent critic of Sculley’s compensation, also did not attend, but said he would have been there if not for a prior commitment as mayor pro-tem.

Brockhouse said Nirenberg’s remarks were “scare tactics.”

“It’s not like [firefighters union President] Chris Steele and the firefighters are getting signatures and it becomes law,” Brockhouse said. “The public has the final say and then we’ll see how the public feels about City Hall.”

Brockhouse said that he agrees the petition requirements are onerous and next to impossible to obtain. To conduct a referendum on certain ordinances, a petition must receive 75,000 signatures in 40 days. The union’s proposed change would expand the scope of ordinances subject to petition and reduce the requirement to 20,000 signatures over 180 days, the same standards currently required to amend the City’s charter.

He said the union will almost certainly get the signatures necessary to bring the proposed City charter amendment to a vote.

Standing behind Nirenberg at the press conference were Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Ana Sandoval (D7), and Clayton Perry (D10).

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Perez said the petition drive concerned business leaders.

“At this point we’re talking to our colleagues and other business groups around the city, and talking about developing a concurrent plan, but nothing has materialized as of yet,” he said at the press  conference.

Steele attended the press conference and stood in Nirenberg’s line of sight as he shot video of the press conference on his phone. At the end of Mayor’s remarks, Steele declined requests for comment.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.