Robin Black (left) signs a petition for chart amendments held by retired fire department lieutenant Bert Kuykendall outside a polling site.
Robin Black (left) signs a petition for charter amendments offered by retired fire department Lt. Bert Kuykendall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Early voting starts Monday – yes, already and also, at last – so I want to take one last opportunity to address the issue of the three City charter amendments proposed by firefighters union chief Chris Steele and his allies. Two weeks ago I made the case that it is, pure and simple, a power play for Steele and his union. Today I’ll explain exactly how it is designed to work.

California and other states that do a substantial amount of governing by initiative and referendum have shown us the ways well-funded special interests use these putative mechanisms of democracy to deceive voters into enacting measures against their own interests. A common technique is to cleverly wrap their own desires inside a cover of sweet, populist proposals.

That is exactly what the union’s Propositions A, B, and C are attempting to do. Let’s consider them a drama in three acts.

Act I:

The curtain rises with a sunny theme. We will take some power away from City Council and give it to the people.

Under the current City charter, if citizens don’t like an ordinance passed by City Council, they can force an election to overturn the ordinance by gathering signatures of 10 percent of voters in the city – currently about 75,000 – within 40 days of the ordinance’s passage.

Under the union’s proposal, such a referendum would require only 20,000 signatures no matter how the city grows, and the deadline would be extended to 180 days, or six months.

In the past, San Antonians have demonstrated their ability to meet the current requirements when sufficiently aroused. In 2002, they gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on a taxpayer-subsidized golf resort over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The plan was withdrawn without an election.

Earlier, citizens gathered enough signatures to overrule City Council on building the ill-conceived Applewhite Reservoir. In fact, they did it twice.

Are citizens so riled up about Council actions these days that they would take to the streets to gather even the 20,000 signatures required for these charter changes? Apparently not. Steele used $505,000 in union dues to hire a Buda firm to pay workers to collect the signatures for the current ballot initiatives.

Meanwhile, the union has set up a political action committee to campaign for passage of the three charter amendments. The union has poured $250,000 into the campaign. But only two citizens made contributions to the PAC, according to its recent filing.

One was a Jourdanton man named Roberto Herrera. He coughed up $76.48. The other was Bob Martin, head of the once-powerful Homeowner Taxpayer Association. His passion is measured at $98.80.

Public uprising? Grassroots movement? No. In technical political science terms, AstroTurf. But with skilled advertising, it could catch the public’s fancy. It is the come-on for the real agenda.

Act II:

The second proposition is also blatantly populist. It would cap the city manager’s salary at 10 times that of the lowest-paid city worker. That’s about half the $475,000 a year City Manager Sheryl Sculley now makes. She also received a $75,000 bonus earlier this year.

Steele argues with outrage that Sculley is paid more than the president of the United States and the governor of Texas combined. That is true, but it’s also true that she makes less than one-tenth of what the average corporate CEO makes with a workforce and revenues the size of the City of San Antonio.

The proposition would also impose an eight-year term limit on San Antonio’s city managers.

This proposition is seen as vengeance on Sculley, who has been involved in a four-year war with the union over her insistence that firefighters pay for part of the burgeoning costs of health insurance for their families.

But while Steele and his union would love to squeeze Sculley’s bank account and even drive her out of town, the purpose of this proposal is deeper and darker. The fact is, it would affect only future city managers, not Sculley. So it can’t be just about her.

Consider this: Sculley was the first city manager with the skill to persuade City Council to take on the issue of out-of-control medical costs for the powerful police and fire unions. She did it not only by solidifying her standing with a succession of mayors and councils, but also by getting then-Mayor Julián Castro to appoint an impressive task force to study the issue and educate the public regarding the danger to the rest of the city budget.

The real agenda in capping the city manager’s salary at an uncompetitive level is to ensure that San Antonio never has another city manager with the skills and strength to take on the unions. Steele more than hints at that when he rails that Sculley is too powerful.

Speaking of term limits, the City may want to consider initiating them for police and fire union heads as part of the next contract. Taxpayers invest a lot of money in training these men and women to do the very important jobs we give them. Steele has not worked as a firefighter for the 13 years he has been the union head, yet the taxpayers bear his approximately $185,000 annual compensation.

An alternative would be to let union members pay Steele what they think he’s worth. If they can afford $750,000 to gather signatures and run a campaign for these proposals, it seems they can afford it.

Act III:

This is the dramatic ending, even if it’s delivered sotto voce. It is where Steele and the union drop all populist pretenses. For all their talk in Act I of giving more power to the people, Act III is designed to keep the people out of the union’s affairs.

Under the current firefighters union contract, a final impasse in contract negotiations is decided in court, possibly with a 12-citizen jury making the decision. The union doesn’t want that.

This charter amendment would give the union sole power to decide when an impasse has been reached, then force the City into arbitration. A single man or woman, or possibly a small panel, would make final and unappealable decisions on the contract.

Police and fire unions have had very favorable experiences with arbitration over the years in disciplinary proceedings. They have every reason to prefer arbitration to the tender mercies of elected judges or tax paying jurors.

And if they really wanted to give power to the people – remember Act I? – it would be very simple. They could simply adopt the impasse procedures of the police contract.

The final arbiters there? Why, it’s the voters in a special election.

Rick Casey

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.