San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele delivers a speech outside of City Hall in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For citizens who care about the future of San Antonio and its governance, there should be one issue of paramount importance: the defeat of the firefighters union and the three destructive charter amendments its paid petition peddlers have placed on a crowded November election ballot.

What to do? Simple: Cast your votes in the national, state, and local races, and then go vote no in opposition to Propositions 1, 2, and 3.

“Go Vote No” can be credited to political consultant Christian Archer, who oversees the campaign efforts of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and many others. It’s a catchy, bumper-sticker phrase meant to inoculate voters against a union disinformation campaign that conceals this reality: a yes vote sabotages real democracy.

Union officials could run for office themselves if they believe they are fit to govern the city, of course, but the preference of Chris Steele, the controversial president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, and his allies is to manipulate and mislead from a back room so the union’s misguided motives and methods are not easily grasped by the electorate.

Let’s get one thing straight: This is not an attack on the dues-paying firefighters who most of us hold in high esteem for their frontline, first responder work. This is about the union officials who collect those dues and are as good at duping their own membership as they are members of the public.

Credit: Courtesy / www.govoteno.com

GoVoteNo.com is the website launched last week by Secure San Antonio’s Future, the political action committee formed to defeat the union’s efforts to amend the City Charter  and undermine the authority of Nirenberg, City Council, and City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Click here to read more about the three charter amendments.

Proposition 1 expands the referendum process, turning every Council decision of significance into an election. Under current rules, 70,000 signatures – about 10 percent of the voters – are needed to place a measure on the ballot. Prop 1 would reduce the required number of signatures to 10,000 – about 3 percent of the voters – and give imported petition peddlers 180 days instead of 40 days to collect signatures.

Recent petition drives by the union and others suggest half or more of such signatures are duplicates, phony, or ineligible, costing the City Clerk significant tax dollars and time to authenticate. Reports of petition signatories later reporting they were misled by the signature solicitors are common.

Proposition 2 would require City officials to submit to binding arbitration with the firefighters union, which for years has refused to come to the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Arbitrators must be approved by the union, and it’s common knowledge that those who want to be selected for the paid work need to demonstrate union sympathies. It’s not a fair process.

Proposition 3 places terms limits and a salary cap on the city manager’s position, an undisguised hit job on Sculley, who has been subjected to smear campaigns by both the police and firefighter unions. I’ve written this before: Can anyone name a male city leader who has been subjected to the same  unending attacks as our female city manager?

Sculley eventually will retire and a new city manager will follow in her footsteps, an unenviable succession. San Antonio may rank fourth in wealth and tax base among the big Texas cities, but we have the best record of fiscal management and the only AAA bond rating. We can bid farewell to that bond rating if Wall Street sees the union muscling its way into local government.

Union officials want government by petition, but they don’t really believe their proposals will make for better government. They are in this to wreak havoc and to try to gain through mayhem what they are unwilling to seek at the negotiating table. They somehow see their tactics as leading to some position of bargaining supremacy, as if City officials should be made to surrender rather than negotiate. For Steele, this is a war.

Until the city’s civic and business leaders are galvanized to defeat the three charter amendments, everything else should be set aside. City Council should vote to approve the sick-pay ordinance currently under consideration, which has wide and deep community support, and then let legislators and the courts decide its fate. It should be kept off the November ballot, where it will only confuse voters also facing the three propositions.

Business leaders still sore over the City’s decision not to bid for Amazon’s HQ2 or the Republican National Convention should set aside those feelings and do whatever is necessary to support Nirenberg and the SSSF political action committee with contributions for the GoVoteNo campaign. The union will receive funds from outside San Antonio to fuel its disinformation campaign and attacks on individual leaders.

The future of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza do not have to reach final resolution while the GoVoteNo campaign gains traction. Why weigh down the public with so many issues at this moment?

At a time when daily newspapers are suffering from seemingly endless job eliminations and financial setbacks, a July 18 article by San Antonio Express-News reporter Josh Baugh, who covers city government, is evidence that newspapers still fulfill an important watchdog role.

Baugh’s reporting uncovered the union’s failure to report $504,000 in payments to a firm in Buda that actually sent workers to San Antonio to gather petition signatures without disclosing they were paid non-residents.

That’s right: The petition drive was not the work of San Antonio firefighters. It was the work of paid outsiders who do not live here, do not work here, and were only in it for the paycheck. Steele only came clean after realizing that Baugh was on his trail.

Even then, Steele reported the $504,000 as an “in-kind contribution” from Texas Petition Strategies when, in fact, he sent the company six-figure checks on three different occasions earlier this year. Yet the union PAC didn’t have enough funds in its own account to cover such sums, which means Steele and other union officials were dipping into other unidentified accounts to fund its so-called grassroots petition drive.

With three months to go until the November elections, more might emerge about union financial dealings that will give voters a clearer understanding of the individuals behind this Trojan horse so poorly disguised as people power.

I am moderating an on-stage conversation with Nirenberg at the Pearl Stable on Tuesday, Aug. 14. There are still tickets available for the event, which will be jointly presented by the Rivard Report and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Click here for more information.

There are no limits on the topics we will discuss, but as far as I am concerned, the big issue is protecting our system of municipal government from a union hijacking.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.