The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is circulating three petitions, proposing changes to the city’s charter that would cap the city manager’s salary and alter the petition process.
Officials say the proposals could have an impact on the city’s ability to govern, while the firefighters union contend the changes will give more power to the people. The petitions come at time when the union and the city have been at a disagreement in contract negotiations over wage and healthcare benefits for almost four years. The union needs at least 20,000 signatures per petition to be placed on a ballot for vote. They have six months to gain enough signatures.
Union President Chris Steele calls the campaign San Antonio First.
“We had a lot of people reach out recently and say they’re not happy with city government. They’re not happy that they’re not listening to their voice as citizens, when it comes to the city manager’s pay and bonus, when it comes to the [San Antonio Water System] rate increases that they had,” he said.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg says the changes would severely limit the city’s role to govern.
“The union boss’ proposal would be devastating to the City of San Antonio. In fact, it would put the utilities’, the city’s, and our public agencies’ financial position in peril and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” Nirenberg said.
One petition would limit how much the city manager can be paid. The current city manager, Sheryl Sculley, is paid $475,000 per year and can receive up to a $100,000 bonus. The proposal would take the lowest city employee salary multiplied by ten to figure the city manager's salary. That would set the manager’s salary, including bonuses, at $296,000. The petition would also set a term limit of eight years.
Marc A. Ott, executive director of the International City and County Managers Association, says such a policy could limit the talent pool of candidates should the charter change go into effect.
“It would take away the council’s prerogative to pay a level of compensation that they believe was appropriate for that position,” he said.
Another petition would reduce the number of signatures needed to change ordinances enacted by the City Council. Currently, in order to change a Council decision on a city ordinance, a petition must have signatures equal to 10 percent of registered voters in the city, within 40 days. That can be over 75,000 required signatures. The petition would change it to the state’s requirement for charter changes of 20,000 signatures over 180 days.
Steele says reducing the number of signatures and extending the number of days will let voters decide on issues like SAWS rate increases.
“This is the ultimate way that things should be done — that things should be ran,” Steele said. “... Let the people vote, educate them and then let them decide and that’s really what this is all about.”
Nirenberg said the changes the union is proposing could manipulate the outcome.
“What they’re attempting to do with changing the petition process is simply for the purposes of allowing special interests like theirs to manipulate the public on a more regular basis,” he said. “It undermines the very essence of representative democracy at the local level.”
The union's third proposal would prevent the city from suing the police and fire unions if there are prolonged disagreements or impasses in contract negotiations. The city has sued the fire union over a health and wage contract dispute. It’s pending at the Texas Supreme Court.
Steele said the proposals are not retaliation for its disagreements and lawsuit the city filed over the healthcare benefits and wage contract.
District Six Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who ran that campaign before he was a council member, said he supports some aspects of the union’s petitions. He said he agrees that the length of time and number of signatures to change ordinances should be changed.
“It doesn’t need to be ridiculously low where you’re doing a referendum on everything,” he said. “That could get bad, but I think they’re numbers, and where they’re at, and what they’re thinking on that one, I’m on board with that.”
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules