Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association deliver signed petitions to the City Clerks office.
Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association deliver signed petitions to the City Clerks office in April 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I was walking home from the King William Parade on the last Saturday in April when I noticed two people stationed in the alley fronting East Arsenal Street just outside the fairgrounds, beckoning Fiesta passersby to stop and sign petitions.

After listening to them for a minute, I remarked, “You don’t look like firefighters.” In retrospect, I should have just listened. Both sized me up as an adversary and interrupted their deceptive claims about City Hall corruption and the need to replace the city manager and others supposedly hostile to first responders.

Neither petition peddler was willing to answer questions, so I walked on. Now I wish I had exercised my legal right to record the individuals as more and more people report they were deceived into signing the petitions by people they believed were actual firefighters and fellow city residents. I wish we had a recording of the misleading pitches to share with readers.

It’s a felony to buy votes in Texas, yet San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele and his fellow union leaders found a workaround: buy petition signatures instead of votes and then hope for a winning outcome at the polls.

It’s legal, but it’s also deceptive. State elected officials ought to outlaw paid petition workers who parachute into Texas cities to gather signatures. Even with more than one-third, or nearly 37,000 signatures, rejected because the individuals were non-residents or otherwise ineligible to vote, the paid workers gathered enough signatures in San Antonio to give the union officials their money’s worth.

People who do not live here, do not work here, do not even know the city, were used to convince San Antonians to sign petitions that threaten to undermine local government. Mayor Ron Nirenberg did not mince words when I asked him about the union’s tactics in an on-stage conversation last week.

“I’ve talked to my colleagues in other cities… and they’re all experiencing some sort of petition-driven chaos in their own cities. Ours is by far the most dramatic and draconian,” Nirenberg said. “But they’re all ready to take a look at this and I believe we should. This is a cottage industry … people who have no connection to San Antonio. The firm that apparently has been peddling this stuff is from Buda. And really, it’s pay per signature.

“We have plenty of reports [that] people who signed the petitions were outright lied to, people falsely identifying themselves as firefighters… people were misled as to what they were actually signing,” Nirenberg said. “It’s wrong, it’s an abuse of our democratic system. We have voter ID laws in the state of Texas, yet someone can be asked and deceived into signing a petition to put a charter amendment onto the ballot — they don’t have to show any of that. We do need to look at this because it’s created chaos within multiple cities with some pretty dramatic long-range effects.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg asks the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations as he stands behind a time clock marking the time since the last contract expired.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg asks the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations in March 2018 as he stands behind a time clock marking the time since the last contract expired. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Voters in San Antonio will vote on three union-conceived charter amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, all with far-reaching consequences that would undermine the City’s ability to deliver essential services.

The petition workers were hired by Texas Petition Strategies, based in Buda, to do the work that firefighters themselves could not or would not do. Union officials paid the company $510,000, apparently using union dues, and then failed to report the political expenditures until the San Antonio Express-News uncovered the deception.

The union tactics worked, of course, and last week City Council recognized the petitions as valid and approved placement of the three charter amendments on the ballot.

A state district judge also gave the union a victory when she denied a request by lawyers representing the Go Vote No campaign who were seeking a temporary restraining order against the petitions being placed on the ballot. The campaign’s lawsuit challenging the legality of how the union funded the petition drives could still lead to a courtroom showdown before the Nov. 6 election.

The right of citizens to petition government as a last resort in the democratic process is important and deserving of protection, but it’s a corruption of the system when you can shortcut the process by buying your way onto the ballot.

The firefighters union undoubtedly will spend far more money between now and Nov. 6 attacking City officials and trying to convince voters to approve the charter amendments. The three proposals are an attack by the union on municipal government as it exists today. Steele has refused to engage in collective bargaining for four years now, and continues to deny the ballot measures are payback, specifically targeting City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and now, Nirenberg. The union’s ads and social media, however, make the union’s intentions clear.

One measure would make it far easier for citizens to challenge ordinances passed by City Council. Union officials would only have to pay petition peddlers to gather 20,000 signatures to force a ballot measure anytime they disagreed with City Council action and wanted to force an election.

A second measure would diminish the office of city manager even though San Antonio has been very well served by a council-manager form of government, which is generally recognized as more professional and less subject to machine politics and corruption than a strong mayoral form of government.

A third measure would force binding arbitration on a new labor agreement between the City and fire union, and thus enable union officials to win a new contract without engaging in collective bargaining.

A study commissioned by the City estimates it would lose a minimum of hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, in the coming years due to reduced economic activity and tax collections if the measures pass. Even now, those working on the Go Vote No campaign to defeat the union measures estimate it will cost more than $1 million to educate voters and counter the union messaging.

This is politics at its worst, and why so many citizens turn off and do not participate. That would be a terrible mistake this year when the future governance of San Antonio is at stake. Voters can support their elected mayor and City Council, or they can back a union leader accountable only to his members who bought the signatures of unwitting petition signers. It should be an easy choice to make.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.