Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) meets with San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez (center) and business leader Gordon Hartman (right) as voting results continue to come in.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) meets with San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez (center) and business leader Gordon Hartman (right) as voting results for propositions A, B, and C come in. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Local business leaders who had spoken out against three controversial city charter amendments and put money behind the effort to see them defeated expressed frustration, though not surprise, over Tuesday’s election results.

San Antonio voters rejected Prop A, which would have made it easier for residents to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote.

But voters approved both Prop B, which limits future city managers’ salaries and tenure, and Prop C, which allows the firefighters union to declare an impasse in labor negotiations with the City and enter binding arbitration to secure a new contract.

Despite the passage of two propositions, seeing Prop A voted down was a relief to Gordon Hartman, the local philanthropist who founded Morgan’s Wonderland. Hartman helped lead the Go Vote No campaign against the charter amendments.

“First of all, I woke up very upbeat as to what did occur ultimately,” Hartman said. “Yes, we wanted to win on all three [propositions] and defeat all three, but the one from Day 1, and the reason I got as engaged as I did in this campaign, is because of Prop A.”

That change to the city charter would have had “major ramifications,” he said, and resulted in the City losing its high bond rating. “We’ve come too far, and to lose that would have been a major loss for the city.”

Prop A failed, Hartman believes, because voters did not want to turn the government structure “upside down.”

“They’ve said we don’t want to go that route and also there’s a reason we elect 10 city council members and a mayor and it’s to be our policymakers and be the people who make decisions for us,” he said. “And if we disagree with those decisions, it’s our job to vote them out and make adjustments, but not do this under a structure that is totally irrational, unpredictable, unstable, and basically impractical.”

Business leaders acknowledged that seeing Prop B pass was not unexpected.

“I think, going in, [Prop B] was the one that had the chance to pass,” said John Agather, incoming board chairman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “In terms of being a business-friendly city, it’s a negative. It will give [businesses] pause in looking at San Antonio or furthering an investment here, especially with the cost of city government.”

“It’s disappointing because this hamstrings our ability to attract talent after Sheryl Sculley leaves,” said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “We struggle mightily to attract the best and brightest … This shortsighted measure put forth by a disgruntled fire union chief has done a terrible disservice to the community. I think [it passed] because the union demonized Sculley and her pay.”

The campaign to pass the propositions made Sculley’s 2017 compensation of $525,000 – which included a $75,000 bonus in addition to her $450,000 base salary – an issue.

“The restriction really makes zero sense in connection to hiring the best and brightest to run and build our city,”said David Heard, CEO of Tech Bloc. “But I’m not surprised at some level, given the strong bias against the salary issue. It was just too easy a message for the fire union to market in some respects.”

If the electorate that voted for Prop B was seeking to put a salary cap on the city manager position, business leaders agree the move could have an impact on more than just the city manager’s paycheck and become a challenge for future city leaders for years to come.

“My concern in losing Prop B is that we will lose some level of our talent pool when Ms. Sculley is no longer manager,” Hartman said. “I think that is a negative when dealing with the magnitude of issues the council puts upon our manager.”

Cristina Aldrete, president and CEO of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said passing Prop B may actually have the opposite effect of what voters wanted. “Council may choose to extend [Sculley’s] contract in order to maintain the well-run, AAA-rated city we’ve enjoyed under her leadership.”

As for Prop C, Hartman said the measure could result in the rank-and-file members of the firefighters union getting a less-favorable contract.

“I’m friends with a lot of firefighters,” he said.  “… A lot of them said they don’t like Prop C because arbitration is a risky business – it doesn’t always go your way.”

Hartman said he hopes now that the elections are over, the union will negotiate for a contract that is good for both firefighters and the City.

Businesses including USAA, NuStar, and Frost Bank contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Go Vote No effort, but individual citizens also opened their wallets, giving amounts from $10 to $500. One of those people was Harriet Marmon Helmle, a director at Covenant and a community activist who gave $200 to the campaign.

“I’m distressed,” Helmle said as the election results were being reported Tuesday. If Prop B passes, “we will never be able to get and retain a decent city manager. The City is a major corporation and people need to think of it as a major corporation. I think this is a very bad move for our city. I think this is a sort of ‘get even’ with Sheryl Sculley, whom the [union] never liked.”

Helmle said she contributed to the anti-proposition campaign because she likes to support causes she believes in. “That’s important to me, just as making a political contribution to the mayor or the county judge or elected officials or people running,” she said.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.