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City Hall Insiders are Sweating the Fire Union’s Proposed Charter Changes – With Good Reason 

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Editor's Note: The following is Their Town, a column of opinion and analysis.

City Hall is panicking over the possibility of voters falling in love with the fire union’s three damaging amendments to the city charter this fall.

The behind-the-scenes consensus is that the measures – one would cap future city managers’ compensation and force him or her to quit after eight years, and another would make it easier to force public votes on a broad range of spending decisions – are likely to prevail at the ballot box on November 6.

That is, if the proposed amendments survive the legal challenge unleashed last week by the Secure San Antonio’s Future political action committee, which is bankrolled by corporations, business and community leaders, and special interests.

Campaign consultant Christian Archer and trial lawyer Mikal Watts, longtime fishing buddies and political partners, are behind the lawsuit. It picks up on reporting by the San Antonio Express-News showing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association flouted campaign-finance reporting rules, effectively masking the source of funding for the wildly successful signature-gathering operation for the three measures.

The PAC’s aim is to convince a judge to keep the three proposed amendments, for which more than 100,000 people signed petitions, off the ballot and out of the reach of voters.

In the meantime, the City Council is expected to vote Thursday to place the union’s “San Antonio First” (zero points for originality) measures on the ballot. That same day, council members will decide whether to hand off another petition-driven initiative – this one requiring all San Antonio employers to provide their workers with paid sick time – to voters in November.

If council falls short of passing paid sick time as an ordinance, it’ll go to a public vote in November – and there was doubt late last week whether enough council members would vote yes to adopt it. Sticking their necks out like that could make them targets of the business community in next year’s city election.

“There does seem to be some energy [on council], though I don’t know if there’s enough energy, to pass this by ordinance,” said Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the grassroots Texas Organizing Project, or TOP, part of the Working Texans for Paid Sick Time coalition. The Texas AFL-CIO, Move Texas, Planned Parenthood and Texas Civil Rights Project are among the other advocates.

A member of the coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity, said flatly that as of August 10, paid sick time was short of a council majority – even though the coalition’s polling on the issue is said to show overwhelming support, north of 70 percent.

Supporters of paid sick time packed council chambers last Wednesday night for a public hearing on the issue. TOP and other Working Texans members, including Planned Parenthood, had worked the grassroots with robo-calls and emails, encouraging them campaign-style to turn out for the hearing.

In San Antonio political consultant Laura Barberena’s view, paid time off for illness or to care for a sick child strikes many voters as fair play. “Most people support the notion of paid sick time from a moral perspective,” she said. “I feel a moral tug. That’s what’s right. That’s American. But, of course, the devil is in the details.”

In a speech last Friday to the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Ron Nirenberg likewise said he supported paid sick leave for everyone. Yet he didn’t want the fingerprints of City Council or San Antonio voters anywhere on it.

“Let me be clear: I believe that paid sick leave is good for business and good for families, but it would be better addressed at the state level,” Nirenberg said, according to the text of his speech. “My hope is that the business community and labor leaders can come together to support a statewide solution that is both pro-business and beneficial for every family.”

Of course, the idea of the GOP-controlled legislature bowing to labor leaders, community activists and Planned Parenthood among others on this issue is as likely as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick turning down an appearance on Fox News.

Nirenberg saved his energy for the fire union’s three flaming bags of dog shit.

“These destructive proposals are an all-out attempt to undermine local leadership and gain leverage over taxpayers,” he said. “They would take our city backwards, bringing divisive politics and bad policy to our local government – the one level of government that still works.

“We are among the fastest growing cities in America, and that means we have to invest in our future. Yet these charter changes would put all of our progress at serious risk.”

The possibility of all four measures going to San Antonio voters in November scares the bejesus out of City Hall. If the paid sick time initiative goes on the November 6 ballot, the voters who support it will also be good with capping a future city manager’s pay and making it easier to bring more city business to a public vote.

Ramiro Cavazos, president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he worries about having both the charter amendments and paid sick leave on the same ballot, that “it would create confusion.”

“City Hall wants to defeat the amendments, and have paid sick time on the ballot would make it that much harder,” said a member of the Working Texans for Paid Sick Time coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity. But city insiders may be overthinking it, the person added. “I personally don’t think they have a chance of beating these charter amendments, whether or not paid sick time is on the ballot.”

The Hispanic Chamber and other business organizations that have come out against the initiative say they’re OK with paying for sick leave, that most of their members already provide the benefit. But they say it would hurt small businesses, and that, most importantly, local government has no business dictating HR policy to employers.

Earlier this year, the Austin City Council mandated paid sick time and promptly got sued by the powerful National Federation of Independent Businesses and other opponents. Their argument is that only state and federal government can require businesses to offer the benefit. To no one’s surprise, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened in the lawsuit, siding with employers.

Last month, Paxton also sent a poison-pen letter to Nirenberg, saying: “We write to inform you that no matter the Council’s decision or the result of any ballot initiative, Texas law preempts a municipal paid sick leave ordinance… We ask that the City Council reject the proposed ordinance...”

Last week, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, made the same point in a letter of her own to city officials.
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‘We Are Behind’

A quick recap on the fire union’s proposed amendments:

One would make it easier to put city ordinances to a public referendum, potentially opening the way for voters to ultimately decide all kinds of spending issues, by increasing the time for signature-gathering and reducing the number of signatures required. Another would cap how much the city managers who follow City Manager Sheryl Sculley can earn and force them to step down after eight years. And, lastly, one would require the city to take labor-contract disputes to arbitration instead of court.

For months now, Nirenberg and company have talked in campaign fashion about the proposed amendments as momentum killers, threatening to return the city to the old days of under-investment in streets, drainage and services.

In a March interview, union President Chris Steele shrugged off the idea that the 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.”

That overly simple message, combined with the unpopularity of Sculley and her compensation package, have given insiders the chills. Expect a well-funded anti-amendment campaign that tries to drown out the fire union’s claims.

“It’s clear we are behind,” Cavazos said. “We need to educate the voters about the dangers of these three charter amendments.”

Secure San Antonio’s Future, launched by Archer and consultant Kelton Morgan, Nirenberg’s 2017 campaign manager, will pay for the campaign. Last month, the PAC reported collecting $255,800 between June 19 and June 30. Among the donors: developer Gordon Hartman, the PAC’s treasurer, $25,000; Jenna Saucedo Herrera, CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, $1,000; Berto Guerra, chairman of SAWS’s board of trustees and CEO of Toyota parts maker Avanzar, $25,000; USAA, $100,000; and accounting giant Ernst & Young, which in 2017 received a six-year property tax abatement from the city and a $309,000 grant to create 600 new jobs locally, $25,000.

Cavazos said he’s heard the PAC has raised more than $1 million to date. And if any of the contributors have any qualms about being on the same team as Mikal Watts, a Democratic kingmaker, they’ve kept quiet about them.

The anti-amendments crowd will need every dime it raises. Barberena is expecting to see a surge of voters who are less than rigorous about casting ballots.

“I think the charter amendments have the ability to turn out voters who don’t typically turn out in gubernatorial elections,” she said. On the other hand, “I could definitely see [the paid sick time measure] bringing out more working-class voters than you’d see otherwise.”

It’s not lost on the insiders who are fighting the union’s San Antonio First amendments that a recent study found that new and infrequent voters effectively elected Donald Trump.

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