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Reject city charter change propositions

October 13, 2018

The fire union’s proposed changes to the city of San Antonio’s charter will be found toward the end of the ballot, but they are of the highest importance and arguably carry the greatest local impact for voters.

We strongly recommend voters reject all three proposals, which are masked as populist local governance but are really tools for the fire union to have its way with the city in a prolonged contract dispute.

That’s not just our take. Chris Steele, the fire union’s president, has said this in a recently released recording.

These proposals are all about the union’s contract — not about what’s best for the public. Collectively, the proposed charter changes risk the city’s Triple-A bond rating, could make it much more difficult for the city to attract the best and brightest talent, and could open the door for small interest groups to hijack city governance.

To support these proposed changes is an act of self-sabotage. A vote for these changes is a vote to make San Antonio a less competitive, more volatile city. It’s a vote to either raise local taxes and fees or slash services.

Proposition A would reduce the signature threshold for referendums from 75,000 to 20,000 and allow for referendums on appropriations, taxes, utility rates, zoning and other concerns.

Proposition B would limit the terms of future city managers to eight years and cap compensation to 10 times the lowest paid city employee.

Proposition C would give the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association the sole right to declare an impasse in negotiations with the city, sending the matter to arbitration.

On the surface, each of these propositions has a certain appeal, but a deeper reading reveals serious flaws.

Lowering the signature threshold to 20,000 is not a pathway for the city’s residents to have a greater voice in local governance, as some have argued. It’s really a pathway for special interests to undercut the public by placing items on the ballot without demonstrating some amount of broad community support or interest.

It would essentially make decisions by the City Council, big or small, open to repeal by special interest. This would create incredible financial uncertainty because any tax or utility rate could be unwound by citizen initiative. This is why the ratings agencies have warned voters about a possible downgrade.

It also undercuts elected officials. The reality is that voters already have a direct say in local governance by choosing the mayor and City Council representatives. If voters don’t like what’s happening at City Hall, they can vote out incumbents.

Proposition B likely sounds appealing to many voters, especially anyone who is upset about City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s base compensation of $475,000. But this proposition does not affect her compensation. It is for future city managers.

While we understand why some voters have concerns about a public official earning so much, a salary cap only limits the applicant pool of future city managers. Why would we do that? An aside, while Sculley’s compensation is a frequent point of community strife, she has saved taxpayers millions of dollars through the city’s Triple-A bond rating, which is a reflection of her financial prowess.

Term limits would effectively turn future city managers into lame ducks when they reach their sixth year of service. Again, how does the community benefit from something so arbitrary? If a city manager is dynamic, it would be in the public’s interest to retain that person longer than eight years. If that person is not hitting the mark, the mayor and council can make a switch.

Proposition C is a giveaway to the fire union. It would not apply to other unions and is designed simply to give the fire union leverage over the city. Bear in mind, in four years, the fire union has never negotiated with the city over a new contract. Not once. Proposition C would codify this, allowing the union to never negotiate with city management.

For comparison, the San Antonio Police Officers Association negotiated a very favorable contract with the city that included a 3 percent lump sum bonus, a wage increase of 14 percent over four years and minor, but necessary, cost shifts on health care.

For those who have grievances with the priorities at City Hall, or believe Sculley makes too much money and has held her post for too long, or simply want to show support for the fire union, there are better ways to address those concerns.

These propositions are reckless and could do long-term harm to city government.

Voters would be wise to reject all three.

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