Why the Fire Union Won: Maybe the Status Quo Didn’t Do as Badly on Election Day as Republican Judges, But It Was Close

click to enlarge Why the Fire Union Won: Maybe the Status Quo Didn’t Do as Badly on Election Day as Republican Judges, But It Was Close
Facebook / George H. Rodriguez‎
Editor's Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.

It took nearly two days for Councilman Greg Brockhouse to call for City Manager Sheryl Sculley to resign based on the November 6 election results. For the first-term District 6 rep, that counts as restraint.

Maybe Brockhouse is mellowing – maturing? – as a public official.

On a more serious note, it’s indisputable that the fire union won the day on November 6. More San Antonians voted “yes” than “no” on the three city charter amendments on the ballot. If somebody from the Go Vote No campaign tries to spin it any other way, give them a disappointed look and slowly shake your head.

It’s true that voters soundly rejected Proposition A, which would have lowered the threshold for putting new city ordinances – including SAWS or CPS Energy rate increases – to a public vote. If the vote had gone the other way, that charter change could have done real damage, potentially slashing tax revenue and hurting attempts to accommodate San Antonio’s anticipated population growth. Prop A was the one Wall Street credit-rating agencies, which have given the city of San Antonio their highest marks, worried about most.

Voters probably realized how easy it would be for special interests – whether developers or culture warriors or labor unions – to take advantage of the much looser rules for putting city ordinances to a referendum.

But it would be a mistake to read the proposition’s defeat as voters’ endorsement of the status quo at City Hall.

They also OK’d Prop C, which requires disputes over the fire union’s contract to go to binding arbitration, not the courthouse, and they went wild for Prop B, which caps the city manager’s salary and imposes an eight-year term limit.

Support for Prop B nearly reached 60 percent. For the sake of comparison, 54 percent of voters sided against Prop A.

Prop B was a referendum on City Manager Sheryl Sculley, her compensation – which, all in, exceeds $500,000 – and the power she’s amassed in her 13 years on the job, even though the charter amendment would affect her successors, not her. In other words, the status quo was on the ballot, and it lost.

The grassroots Texas Organizing Project (TOP) took no position on Prop C but worked to defeat Props A and B. Yet TOP’s executive director, Michelle Tremillo, had a warning for establishment opponents of the measures.

“On Proposition B, TOP members acknowledged that they share frustrations and concerns with the city manager’s salary and power, but couldn’t support the combination of solutions as bundled in this proposition,” Tremillo said in September. “The mayor and city council should take these concerns and frustrations seriously, and move to address them with input from the community. This proposition will pass unless they find a way to inspire voters and invite them in to craft a different way to run our city.”

Tremillo was right. The business-backed Go Vote No campaign didn’t bother to seriously address voters’ concerns about Sculley, and lost as a result.

And for all the noise about leaked audio recordings of fire union President Chris Steele, voters approved – albeit by a slim, 51-percent margin – Prop C, the only charter amendment that directly benefitted the union.

Based on last week’s outcome, it’s a safe bet that Brockhouse, a fire union ally and one of its former political consultants, will challenge Mayor Ron Nirenberg in the 2019 city election. It’s even more likely that he’ll spend as much time, if not more, railing against Sculley as he will Nirenberg.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.
Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

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