A commentary by Blayne Tucker
Flickr | Erik (HASH) Hersman
In the background of chaos transpiring at the federal level, many voters may feel overwhelmed, disenfranchised, or helpless with the lack of power to exact real, instant impact, one way or another. The notion of achieving amity in the current body politic feels entirely remote anytime soon. However, change begins at the local level, and we all possess the ability to effect change locally, immediately.
Some of the most contentious matters on the ballot are Propositions A, B, & C
For a general summation about the facts of each proposition, Iris outlines each of them concisely for a quick overview.
Opponents of the propositions tout governmental efficiency and an adverse effect on our City’s AAA bond rating. These propositions are a culmination of years of perceived bulwarks when dealing with the leadership in San Antonio. Instead, leadership has opted to pursue the agendas of special interest money, in order to exert influence where the elites in the city have deemed necessary. Utilizing taxpayer dollars, the city has routinely and successfully fought against many people and entities by essentially starving them out in litigation.
In San Antonio, political power lies within the City Manager’s office, due to the structure of our city charter. Political influence from the mayor is dependent on the charisma of the mayor herself. The last charismatic mayor we’ve had in San Antonio was Julian Castro, when he decided to abandon the city to pursue political aspirations at the federal level, hence political power became consolidated within the City Manager’s office at autocratic proportions. A vacuum in Castro’s own power began to wane, years before he actually even left. The City Manager seized the opportunity, once she sensed his ambitions, while he was still in office.
The City, at the direction of our City Manager, is accustomed to bullying outside groups who challenge the normal ordinary course of business. If you aren’t a developer or business conglomerate who can afford to hire one or more of the 7 or 8 lobbyists who can sway influence, activist groups have largely been sidelined. It wasn’t until the firefighter’s union challenged the city all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, with the city utilizing over $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars to fight this effort, did these propositions become absolutely necessary.
Looking at Proposition C, specifically, binding arbitration is a win for taxpayers if no one else. In the course of litigation, no one seeks or desires arbitration, because it results in inevitable compromise. However, voting against binding arbitration, in this sense, would allow the city to continue its bullying of outside groups by starving outside challenges through legal expenses. How many ordinary people can fight the city and win after all? This is not how taxpayer dollars ought to be used: as a weapon to marginalize those who are weaker. If anything, this demands a better democratic process from the City that is currently autocratically managed by a City Manager who wields too much autonomous power. Ironically, opponents of the propositions fearfully assert division within the city as a consequence, while the City’s existing process fosters divisiveness, forcing its sub-communities to compete for dollars which prevents San Antonioans' from moving forward together which their true identity, cohesively amongst the sub-communities themselves. San Antonio's neighborhoods and communities can help realize the true identity of the aggregate City. Given the chance, neighborhoods won’t turn against one another, it’s not in their collective character or nature, yet laboriously they scramble for dollars to preserve and solidify infrastructure for their residents and businesses while outside developers and corporations are incentivized to make this city something that it is not. Why not further reward existing corporations and community partners, rather than prematurely rewarding unproven outsiders who thus far have not had our collective communities’ best interest in mind?
A leader from Tech Bloc recently related Proposition A, B, and C to the national wave of populism throughout the country. Looking closely at the root of populism, the definition itself means, "support for the concerns of ordinary people". We can juxtapose this by saying it’s against the explicit desires of the elite. Looking at the cast of characters who actually support these measures we find the mayor, many on city council, the city manager, chamber of commerce, and others within the business community at-large. In other words, the Major's proponents of these propositions are precisely the elite of San Antonio, without regard to the average, ordinary person who struggles to have her basic needs met.
We often hear how San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States, but what does that actually mean for the ordinary San Antonian? Within 403 square miles of 1604, San Antonio is a tenuous network of disparate pockets of communities who don’t really know one another. The Southside and Northside don’t know each other’s communities the same way the Eastside and Westside’s don’t know one another either, without even getting into the nuanced aspects of the individual neighborhoods themselves. While elected representatives come together at council to raise concerns for the needs of their separate communities, those same representatives become divided by the grander concerns of the autocratic City Manager who pushes a special interest view, ostensibly benefiting the so-called bigger vision of San Antonio. This overwhelming, macro bureaucratic influence is what drives this elite sense of community we’ve been forced to accept. It is accomplished through current leadership constantly looking beyond the city, in order to solicit talent from outside the city, to make San Antonio something that it isn’t. With a few exceptions, the leadership in the city manager’s office doesn’t seek to look within the city for future leadership, but rather, looks outside for someone or something else.
Again, those spearheading the movement against these Propositions are the usual people of power: the mayor, city manager, chamber of commerce, several multi-millionaires, and billionaires who tout the effect this may have on our bond rating, as well as overall efficiency of government. Why would anyone trust this group of people who have fundamentally prevented this city from getting to know itself, when their own power has rested in keeping us isolated from each other, in order to suit their own desires? They’ve maintained their stranglehold of influence by selectively allocating dollars in ways that benefit only the elite. Does the average person in this city earn over $600,000 per year like our City Manager? Can the average person in this city afford $15,000 curtains for his office like Mayor Ron Nirenberg? The answer is no. Yet, how can these same city leaders purport to have our city’s best interest in mind, when they exist on a level foreign to the average citizen of San Antonio.
The Greek philosopher Herodotus taught about the idea of keeping power hidden and arcane from the masses, because if power remains hidden and speciously complicated by those in power, the average citizen will likely demur, forfeiting their inherent rights to those that supposedly know better.
A vote in favor of Proposition A allows for citizens within the community to rally together against decisions by the City Council and the City Manager, in her autocratic capacity. The Declaration of Independence proclaims, “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the power of the government emanates from the people. Therefore, a measure allowing for greater participation and input from the citizens/constituency through referendum should be favored, rather than vilified. We must ask ourselves, what is the intent of an elite leadership who seeks to curb the power of people in a city, state, or nation? Perhaps, as Herodotus opined, leadership in this city feels it’s all too complicated for the ordinary person, and should be kept shrouded in mystique. What might that say about the current leadership’s opinions of the average citizen of San Antonio?
Lastly, a vote in favor of Proposition B limits pay for the City Manager, and more importantly her tenure in office. Our current City Manager has reigned in power for nearly 15 years, as an efficient technocrat ably installing personnel to suit her own personal vision. Voting yes for this proposition effectively creates a balance of power between the people of San Antonio and the autocratic rule that can result when the City Manager, who operates autonomously and without any familiar or intimate knowledge of the average citizen of San Antonio, possesses what essentially amounts to unchecked power. Why wouldn’t we want a check on the city manager’s power?
The origins of the Propositions and the reasons themselves are a culmination of years of disagreement with city, and the lack of power for popular input, demonstrating the city’s functional incompetency. The City of San Antonio, at the direction of City Manager Sheryl Sculley has expended in excess of $1.5 million dollars fighting against the healthcare benefits for firefighters, only to have the case rejected by the Supreme Court of Texas. In this regard, Proposition C, and voting in favor of same, forces both parties to agree to binding arbitration, in the event of an impasse between both sides, when one party chooses. There is absolutely no legitimate reason this shouldn't be implemented.
Why not strengthen the fibers loosely bind our communities together, more deeply incentivizing the corporations that already exist here, and fortify our community supports, rather than government morphing the city into a body of disconnected cells? If left to its own democratic devices, the city will thrive on its own merits and own abilities. Nowhere was the city’s cultural disconnect from itself more evident than the Tricentennial Commission, whose effectuation was largely directed and coordinated beyond the purview of the commission itself. A diluted, whitewashed, and overly simplified account of San Antonio emerged, much like the city already portrays through Visit San Antonio. Imagine if San Francisco exclusively marketed itself as a place to visit Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf. The idea would fail miserably, because new generations embrace virtues of entire cities themselves as a whole from the outside. Visitors want to go where locals go. The true San Antonio is everywhere and in between. Yet, our leaders fail to holistically promote ourselves to people who visit our city.
Beyond the democratic implications of these propositions, we must also keep public safety at the forefront of this discussion. In a city that houses the FBI’s third largest organized crime task force in the country, where crime remains the highest among the nation’s 15 largest cities, including Houston, Dallas and Austin, do we want to inveigh against the fundamental interests of first responders and public safety officers who keep our community safe? The city expends the majority of its budget in these departments, yet we’re the only major metropolitan city where officers don’t ride in pairs, or where flashlights for firearms are expected to be purchased by the officers themselves. This doesn’t make sense. Our first responders and public safety must come first, and we are compelled to give them the tools they need to perform their duties to their utmost ability. Make no mistake, a vote against these propositions is a vote against public safety, and those men and women who provide same for our collective community on a daily basis. For those who claim we cannot cut costs in other areas, perhaps we should start with the $14 million land bridge on the Northside, when alternatively, Alamo Club, a private golf course, could have been fully purchased and converted into a public park for $7 million. The difference could have gone elsewhere.
Now, for those who will continue to argue against these propositions, simply because it may have the effect of isolating ourselves, in such a way that might detract or deter businesses from moving into the market, we ought to look no further than 80 miles up the road in Austin, TX.
In the 70’s and into the 80’s Austin City Council was predominantly dominated by left-leaning members, who diligently sought to maintain Austin as a quiet enclave, failing to invest in public transit, roads, or business development in general. They sought to deter people from moving to Austin. Meanwhile, San Antonio sought to complete 1604 and 410, heavily investing in infrastructure to support growth and attract outside interest. The opposite effect of what was intended actually happened. Everyone flocked to Austin, while San Antonio continued to look outward, not only in terms of development, but also leadership’s quest to obtain identity for the city itself. The lesson is that even if we turn our efforts and scrutiny inwards, doing so may attract the same or even greater interest externally, more so than when we attempt to manufacture allure by desperately seeking the approval of outsiders who don’t understand the identity of San Antonio, beyond what they’d been carefully spoon-fed. Given the chance we can excel. San Antonio is in arguably the most unique place geopolitically among the several states. We are the confluence of Latino culture, the veritable border, Military City USA. We are the city where Latinos should never be labeled minority, because Latinos proudly stand as the majority here. Yet, we currently live in a city where the Mayor, who is not from San Antonio, cannot properly pronounce “Bienvenidos” in a public service announcement in the baggage claim at the airport: the first thing first time visitors hear when they arrive in San Antonio.
We are a city whose core values exemplify diversity, tolerance, and appreciation for one another. It’s only been local government’s undue, unilateral decision making, which has isolated the population, and propagated dividing lines and stereotypes. Some of the most egregious examples launched by the opposition include ad hominem attacks on Christopher Steele as lacking character and intellect, sending mailers falsely, maliciously portraying him in a mugshot, or depicting him as a cartoon character in his underwear on the cover of the city’s only alt-weekly newspaper. These should be considered nothing more than veiled racial attacks orchestrated by those in power, in order to attack an individual person, rather than the underlying merits of the ideas he has helped propose. Why would anyone resort to these tactics if the ostensible goal is unity in the community? On this topic, I’ll defer to Greg Popovich’s words when he calls for a bigger discussion on race. We can only truly celebrate our accomplishments and virtues as a city, once we acknowledge the mistakes and failures we’ve made in the past.
It’s time for the citizens of San Antonio to reclaim their city together. It’s going to take the communities uniting together to neutralize the elitist platform that’ run this government for decades by special interest. Voting yes for Propositions A, B, & C give citizens the power to finally exercise their innate right to fair, democratic governance. Whether these propositions pass or not, a democratic revolution is brewing within San Antonio, and it’s supported by the first responders and public safety officers who protect us in the first place. Perhaps we should consider revising the city charter next. We don’t know what is possible as a truly collective community, however, if we reclaim our rights and assert our own democratic influence, we will truly have an opportunity to determine our own destiny for the benefit of San Antonio as a whole.
VOTE YES to Propositions A, B, & C.
Blayne Tucker is a local lawyer, small business owner, founder/president of the North St. Mary’s St. Business Owners Association, board member of the Tobin Hill Community Association, and former Tricentennial Commissioner/Nirenberg D8 appointee.