AP NEWS

Tough choices ahead for the city

November 10, 2018

San Antonio voters delivered a split decision on the fire union’s three charter change propositions — and injected chaos into the city.

Voters shot down Proposition A, which would have lowered the signature threshold for referendums from 75,000 to 20,0000. and opened the door for special interests to have their way with city policies.

It was pitched as giving voice to the people, but kudos to voters for seeing through this. It would have opened the door for special interests to have their way at City Hall on any issue, including taxes and utility rates. This vote was crucial for preserving the city’s AAA bond rating and maintaining economic vitality.

Voters overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition B, which will cap the compensation and tenure of the next city manager. And they narrowly endorsed Proposition C, giving the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association the sole right to declare an impasse in contract negotiations with the city, sending the matter to arbitration.

Residents will have to live with the repercussions of these decisions, which might take years to truly manifest.

Proposition B had strong populist appeal, and was almost certain to pass. But let’s be clear-eyed about its impact. Proposition B will make it incredibly difficult for the city to attract and retain future management talent. Who would take a job that at maximum will last eight years and has an artificial salary cap? Someone, no doubt. Time will tell if that’s the best “someone.”

Proposition C is a giveaway to the fire union. It means the fire union will never have to negotiate with the city on a new contract. This only applies to the fire union, but it will have major consequences for the city’s budget in terms of health care and pension costs.

But these two propositions have passed, so now what?

The most pressing question relates to the future of City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Should she stay on? One of the ironies of this split decision is that Proposition B does not apply to Sculley. That means Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council could renew Sculley’s contract and delay the effects of Proposition B. This has merit. It would provide stability, but it also would come with political risk.

In the eyes of many, Proposition B was very much a referendum on Sculley, and Nirenberg is up for re-election in May. Sculley has been an effective and visionary city manager, but the political dynamic is inescapable. Then again, who would take this job with such arbitrary caps on salary and tenure?

The other lingering question is what happens with the fire contract. As of this writing, it’s unclear if Proposition C applies to this contract, or the next round of negotiations. It’s also possible Proposition C might be subject to a legal challenge.

Whatever the case, in an ideal world, both sides would look at this split decision, sit down and come to a contract agreement. After all, the margin for Proposition C was razor thin. You have to squint to see a mandate.

But city politics is hardly ideal. In four years, the union has never agreed to negotiate with the city. It should have. But the city and Nirenberg are hardly blameless. Nirenberg should have prioritized this contract when he was elected two years ago. Meanwhile, the city stuck with a lawsuit over an evergreen clause in the fire union’s contract — and lost. It could have dropped the suit and negotiated.

But hindsight is always crystal clear. The challenge now is to find a way forward after this vote. Mayor, Council: What are the city’s options to mitigate the damage?

AP RADIO
Update hourly