San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele and union members deliver petitions to City Hall. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Now that the runoff elections and an anemic voter turnout are history, it’s time to turn our attention to the November ballot and the most important election in contemporary San Antonio history. This is not about the mood of the nation and how voters feel about the Trump administration or the Republican-controlled Congress.

This is not about the closely watched Congressional, statewide, or local races in Texas. All of those contests offer a remarkably newsy midterm ballot and merit a robust voter turnout, but I am looking closer to home.

The looming challenge for San Antonio and its residents will be found in three ballot initiatives that are the work of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association leadership, all intended to disrupt responsible city government as we know it.

And for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, yet to complete his first year in office, and a City Council with six of 10 members newly elected last year, the political challenge mounted by the firefighters union is proving to be a serious distraction from other city business, one that will tally a high cost in time, energy, and money.

“Everybody is united on this,” Nirenberg told me Friday, speaking of business community support. “For the next six months I will be almost solely focused, with exceptions, until this challenge is dead. We will get our other work done, but I will knock on every door, talk to every neighborhood association, and meet with every civic group I can. Voters must realize everything they want to see happen in the city is at risk if these initiatives pass. We cannot underestimate the threat.”

The firefighter union leaders say they are merely seeking reforms to the San Antonio City Charter, but the truth is they are wreaking havoc out of anger that they can’t get what they want at the collective bargaining table, where they have refused to take a seat for more than four years. Union leaders are especially incensed by the City’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 10-year evergreen clause that has long been part of the union contract.

That contract leaves in place all terms of an expired contract when the two sides cannot agree on a new deal. Since firefighter union officials refuse to come to the bargaining table, that clause has protected their membership’s rich array of benefits.

It costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to provide health care benefits for each firefighter, more than three times what it costs to provide health care for the City’s civilian workers. That’s why San Antonio spends 66 cents of every dollar in its treasury on public safety, a difficult standard to maintain and one that limits what the City can spend on many other initiatives it simply cannot afford.

Refusing to bargain, however, has hurt the working men and women in the city’s fire stations. They have not had a pay increase in four years. It’s hard to imagine hardened City negotiators agreeing to a retroactive raise equal to what has been left on the table.  Prolonging the standoff serves no purpose.

“What the union leaders do not realize is that the changes they propose will destroy all they have gained as firefighters in collective bargaining,” Nirenberg said in our Friday conversation. “Their knife cuts both ways.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Union to join in contract negotiations.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg exits the media briefing room at City Hall after asking the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Union to join contract negotiations in March. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The union leaders have every right to vigorously oppose the City’s lawsuit through the courts, and in fact, to date, they have held the upper hand as both City officials and union leaders watch the Texas Supreme Court and wait to learn whether it will hear the City’s appeal of a lower court ruling in the union’s favor.

In the meantime, union leaders have struck a match and are trying to set afire City Hall. They are seeking attention at all costs, even if their tactics cause lasting damage.

Fire union President Chris Steele recently told the Rivard Report‘s Iris Dimmick that the union’s so-called San Antonio First campaign is all about giving voters a stronger voice, “letting the people decide.”

Decide what? Whether every significant City Council decision should be subjected to an expensive, months-long citywide referendum? Whether the city manager, who presides as chief executive officer over a multibillion enterprise and more than 13,000 employees, deserves to be paid competitively?

Barring legal challenge, voters will decide if the City Charter should include language that limits the salary and tenure of future city managers; forces binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract with a union-approved arbitrator; and makes it easier for citizens to force public votes on proposed ordinances and financial decisions. The latter could lead to voters signing petitions every time elected leaders make a tough decision such as, say, a utility rate increase.

“The risk to everyone who cares about San Antonio is almost unthinkable,” Nirenberg said. “If you couple local control issues with the Texas Legislature and what the firefighters union is doing, you will realize San Antonio is at a critical moment.”

A tough campaign is taking shape on the horizon. The union’s media blitz undoubtedly will be fueled by outside money. It will vilify City Manager Sheryl Sculley in ways no male city leader ever seems to endure. If the police union’s prolonged campaign against Sculley is any indication, the ads will be suffused with ridiculously false claims and repulsive personal attacks.

Nirenberg will turn to local business leaders to fund a more reasoned media campaign designed to educate voters, maximize voter turnout, and appeal to reason. The goal will be to convince a solid majority to vote “no” on the three initiatives.

Nirenberg, meanwhile, has continued a tradition started by Mayor Phil Hardberger more than a decade ago of monthly lunches with local CEOs. The most recent gathering was hosted by USAA CEO Stuart Parker. Nirenberg also is using every one of his many public speaking  appearances to make his case.

Several former mayors have agreed to join the campaign, and prominent developer and philanthropist Gordon Hartman has agreed to serve as campaign treasurer. Political consultant Kelton Morgan, who has managed all of Nirenberg’s successful campaigns since he was first elected as the District 8 councilman in 2013, will manage the campaign opposing the firefighters union.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.