How to Avoid City Charter Doomsday? Run Away

click to enlarge Chris Steele announced his "San Antonio First" campaign on Feburary 20 - Facebook via San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association
Facebook via San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association
Chris Steele announced his "San Antonio First" campaign on Feburary 20

As you may have heard, the fire union is trying to blow up city government.

City Hall and the chambers of commerce are a messy combination of shocked, incensed and scared witless. San Antonio’s opinion writers are competing to see who can write more ominously about the union’s threat to our way of life.

And San Antonians – well, many of them are signing the petitions for a city charter election that are at the heart of all this anxiety.

One of the firefighters' proposed charter amendments would loosen the rules for putting city ordinances to a public vote. It would be a triumph of direct democracy – if by that you mean something along the lines of developers employing an army of campaign consultants to rip up environmental regulations at the ballot box.

Another proposed amendment would force council to curb the city manager’s compensation, and impose a cap of eight years on the job.

Here’s the fire union’s rundown of its creepily named “San Antonio First” program. And here’s the city’s take.

If the union gets its three amendments on the ballot, and voters
approve them, the result probably wouldn’t be apocalyptic, but San Antonio would be staring at third-tier status. We’d look more Deep South than Sunbelt.

So here’s a suggestion: Give the union what it wants. Drop the “evergreen” lawsuit, which the union sees as a grave threat. (Click here for a primer on the lawsuit.)

Fold like a cheap card table.

Do like King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and
run away!

In return, get the fire union to drop its petition drive, and to never speak of it again.

Then start negotiating.

Important to note: the fire union's president, Chris Steele, dismissed this scenario as "a ludicrous idea." (He said it as politely as he could, but still. Ouch.) But that's because the city has shown zero inclination to pull out of the litigation, not necessarily because it's a terrible idea.

"Right now, they've had every opportunity to drop the lawsuit," Steele said. "They're going to continue wasting taxpayers' dollars... We haven't even considered [a deal]."

He also utterly rejected the notion that the union's charter amendments would damage city government, saying that's "power brokers and politicians trying to scare the people."

"The people are the smartest ones, and they run this city," Steele said. "If there's going to be a problem [caused by a referendum], they won't do it."

On the other side of the divide, we asked Mayor Ron Nirenberg whether he’d be up for pulling the lawsuit as part of a grand truce.

Doesn’t sound like it.

“The city has attempted to negotiate with the union bosses for four years,” Nirenberg said in a written statement. “The door is still open. The reason for the lawsuit is the fact that union bosses have refused to come to the table.

“Holding the city hostage is not a path to resolving the next collective bargaining agreement. The taxpayers deserve for firefighters union leaders to be negotiating today and our door is open.”

The possibility of a truce, however, isn't completely friendless. 

County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, who started his political career on city council, has warmed to the idea. “Where before [ending the lawsuit] wasn’t an option, it damn sure should be an option on the table now – this just got real serious,” he said.

Wolff said he’s heard from contacts close to union leaders that they’ve already collected half of the signatures they need to put the charter amendments on the ballot.

If you’re tempted to laugh off the union's efforts because Steele is ham-handed or whatever, don’t.

“People laughed at C.A. Stubbs, too, and he’s the reason we have term limits,” Wolff said, referring to the banjo-strumming demagogue clown – may he rest in peace – who launched the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association of Bexar County in the 1980s. The HTA was largely responsible for the city’s crazy limit of two two-year terms for council members.


Whether you think dropping the lawsuit is a good, or bad, idea may depend on what you believe the fire union’s real motivation is in pushing for these charter amendments.

Steele has said the effort stems from deep concerns about City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s compensation and the ease with which council handed her a $75,000 bonus. There’s also council’s rubber-stamping of SAWS rate hikes in December.

Not surprisingly, a couple of other schools of thought have opened for business.

One says union leaders are out for blood because of the lawsuit, what they see as Sculley’s intransigence, and council’s blind allegiance to her. Her salary and bonus package act as an accelerant for the fire.

Another school says the charter push is all about the lawsuit. And if you believe that, a deal should be possible. The city ends the litigation, the union stops organizing for a damaging charter fight.

The reality is almost certainly a mash-up of all of these motivations. But the fact that one of the proposed amendments would bar the city from taking the fire union to court when contract talks turn south – well, maybe a deal’s possible.

Which would be better than keeping company with Biloxi, Miss., on the third tier.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.