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Charter amendments will derail economic growth

October 6, 2018

A recent national report listed the cities that have created the most employment in the nation during the past 10 years. Austin was first, Nashville was second, and San Antonio was third. Our jobs base grew by 24 percent from 2007 to 2017. That means that just in the past 10 years, San Antonio employment grew by the equivalent of a quarter of the jobs total we have amassed in our entire history.

Our city’s growth in jobs and wages has never been so strong. We are enjoying the cumulative effects of more than 40 years of consistent, focused, cooperative economic efforts: new industries, job training, business retention, small-business development, better education, public service employment, expanding biosciences and other growth sectors. And thousands of San Antonians have been the beneficiaries, working in better jobs and living better.

It is very difficult for a city to stay on such a positive course for so long. San Antonio has done it. We have forged a delicate consensus that more jobs and higher wages are our keys to enhancing the climate of prosperity and opportunity for all our residents.

In November, we face a community decision that could end that consensus. Three charter amendments on the ballot will raise serious questions about our finances, our leadership structure, our political processes and, most of all, our stability. That may sound like exaggerations, but the business of keeping a city on the path of job growth is delicate, and it depends in part on many decision-makers across the nation whose opinions matter. So it is not an exaggeration to say that an impetuous, angry or misguided decision on the charter amendments can do grievous damage to our future.

Let me explain.

The first of the proposed charter amendments would reduce the number of signatures necessary to take a City Council decision to a referendum — down from 75,000 to 20,000 signatures. And the subjects that can be taken to a referendum would include appropriations, taxes and utility rates.

I know it is tempting to want to try to reverse such decisions because we all hate taxes and rate increases. But imagine a constant stream of elections to reverse financial decisions that are, unfortunately, necessary for city operations, electricity generation and water supplies.

Do the math: To reduce the needed signatures to 20,000 in a city of 1.4 million is a ratio that essentially says that one person in an assembly of 70 could reverse the decisions of our elected representatives and constantly put those decisions to expensive, divisive, repetitious and unpredictable elections. Now that is the definition of municipal instability. We must resist the temptation to put the community into a position where small, disgruntled groups can easily throw our entire political environment into dysfunction. Other cities have only realized the chaos created when they do something like this after they have done it — and then it is too late. The time to think about it soberly and calmly is now.

Another of the proposed charter amendments would limit the city manager’s tenure and cap the salary of the position. Think about it: Over the years, the city manager’s position in our system has been key to the progress we have made. The council-manager system has contributed to our success. The best-run cities in the nation tend to be council-manager cities, including Austin and Dallas, and we are one of them. Through my various jobs, I have worked in 200 different American cities in every one of the 50 U.S. states, and I have seen the comparison with my own eyes. San Antonio, on the whole, is a well-respected city government.

Now I ask you, how will we recruit from among the highest quality city management talent in the future if the salary is capped and the job tenure is fixed? Those constraints would smell of a troubled, contentious city to any talented city manager looking to work in a stable environment. Because the tenure is limited, after a few years on the job, the limp of a lame duck will be visible and the position will lose its authority to lead.

I am afraid the implications will go beyond the failure of a single city manager. That failure will become a downward spiral, and the system that has served San Antonio well since 1955 will itself be seen as failed. We should not risk the instability that would follow. You can disagree with the present city manager on particular decisions. You may even dislike the person. But you shouldn’t vote to sink the entire system because you are angry with or dislike the current occupant. That would be shortsighted and self-defeating for our city.

And though the third amendment seems to be less destructive, it would give the firefighters union the sole right to declare an impasse in contract negotiations, substituting binding arbitration for negotiations. The danger is that the decision concerning what the city has to spend on one municipal function will be taken out of the hands of the city budget officials who know what the city can afford without having to cut other important functions. Arbiters are inclined to split the middle in a dispute, and that middle can be out of balance with what the city can afford. It is this amendment that is most likely to cost the city its hard-earned AAA bond rating.

It is my sincere conclusion that each of the three amendments is bad for the progress we have built together in San Antonio. Nations, states and cities make mistakes that change their arc of progress and that they later regret. Unfortunately, the polls show today the amendments would pass. Some of our fellow residents on the political left may dislike the power of the city manager or are inclined to align with unions. Others on the political right may be inclined to restrict government at all levels. And others without firm political leanings may be tempted to disrupt what they perceive to be established business as usual.

I say, be careful. We are walking toward a dangerous cliff.

I deeply respect, appreciate and admire our firefighters. They have one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, and they often put their lives on the line for us. They deserve ample pay and benefits. This contract dispute has been acrimonious with many unnecessary elements. There is finger-pointing, blame, hurt feelings and personal animosities all around. But these charter amendments are the wrong way to settle the current negotiations, and they are the wrong way to sustain the economic and social progress that has touched so many lives in the most progressive era San Antonio has ever experienced.

Le me reduce all this to three simple questions. Just ask yourself:

1. Do you believe that calling repeated elections to reverse a broad range of mayoral and City Council decisions would be positive for the stability of city government?

2. Do you believe you could compete for the best person for your business or personal projects if you fixed the salary and limited the tenure for that person?

3. Do you believe ending salary negotiations by allowing one union alone to call in an outside arbitrator at any point is the best way to get to a result that is fair to all city employees and to taxpayers?

If most of you answer these questions “yes” or “I don’t care,” then the amendments will likely pass, and we will all take our chances with the consequences.

But if you honestly answer these questions “no,” then vote “no” on Nov. 6 and let us together build on the progress San Antonio has made.

Henry Cisneros served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton and served four terms as mayor of San Antonio. He is a partner at the infrastructure finance firm Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co.

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