Sculley's Rigid Legal Stance Helped Create a Toxic Political Swamp

click to enlarge JEREMIAH TEUTSCH
Jeremiah Teutsch
Editor's Note: The following is Their Town, a column of opinion and analysis.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley deserves some of the blame for the damaging city charter amendments that the fire union is forcing onto the November ballot.

True, she didn’t cook up the amendments. She didn’t collect signatures to put them to a public vote. And she didn’t talk about how these measures would put power back in the hands of the little guy – though what they would really do is weaken city government. That’s all been the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s doing.

In fact, these charter proposals, each in its own way, cut against what Sculley represents – a strong, high-performing chief executive for city operations.
But Sculley has contributed to this mess all the same. She helped create the poisonous political environment out of which these amendments have grown.

Sculley took a hardline on the fire union’s evergreen clause, which keeps firefighters’ labor contract in force for 10 years after its expiration. The city sued the fire and police unions in state court in November 2014, two months after the firefighters’ contract expired, and she’s never shown even a hint of willingness to reconsider.

Two mayors, Ivy Taylor and Ron Nirenberg, have followed her lead in sticking to this legal strategy.

So far, two lower courts have sided against the city. It’s staking everything on the conservative Texas Supreme Court hearing the city’s appeal later this year and striking down the union’s evergreen clause. As Councilman Greg Brockhouse – Sculley’s No. 1 critic – recently revealed, the city has spent nearly $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars on what has been a courtroom loser up to this point.

The city’s legal argument is that the evergreen clause drives up costs for the city, in effect creating a public debt and violating the Texas constitution. The dollars-and-cents argument is that spending on firefighters’ rich compensation package will eat up too much of the city’s general fund, crowding out other basic services such as street repairs, parks and libraries.

The fire union was an aggressive political animal to begin with. By the time the city went to court, union leaders had already successfully battled the downtown streetcar project and were ginning up attacks on Sculley.

Firefighters viewed her decision to turn to the legal system to cut the heart out of their city council-approved contract as a betrayal. Sculley’s and the city’s rigidity on the lawsuit further radicalized the union, which escalated its attacks on Sculley.

The city, for its part, engaged in a shadow war on the union and its president, Chris Steele, through the news media.

Sculley utterly rejects this take on the city’s struggle with the fire union. The following is her statement to the Current in its entirety.

“The fire union has tried to defeat mayors and council members and to get me fired – all unsuccessfully.

“The City has nothing to lose with the Evergreen lawsuit, while the union has everything to lose. If the Texas Supreme Court schedules oral arguments and rules in our favor, the union will have no contract and no choice but to come to the table motivated to negotiate. If the City loses, we have what we have now: a 10-year evergreen clause that continues the union’s unsustainable benefits.

“We’ve had the courage to address an issue that was kicked down the road for more than 25 years, and predictably, the union has followed a script: find an enemy and keep them in their crosshairs. The unions have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to disparage me, yet I continue to have the City Council’s support to do what is in the best interest of the taxpayers.”

A couple of things come to mind when I read this – drawn-out trench warfare and the thought that this fight has become far too personal. On that last point, I’m in agreement with Brockhouse, who worked as a paid political consultant for the police and fire unions before winning election last year in District 6.

“I think it’s completely personal with the city manager – but it’s not about her,” said Brockhouse, who self-identifies as the fire union’s “biggest supporter.” He then took it a little farther: “You remove Sculley from the equation, and (a new labor agreement) gets done in 90 days.”

The union also has taken the fight, and waged it, too personally. Its three lousy charter proposals are the among the results. Reminder: the city clerk certified two weeks ago that the firefighters have all the signatures they need to get the measures on the ballot next fall.

Not surprisingly, one would require the city to take labor-contract disputes to arbitration instead of court. Another would make it easier to put city ordinances to a public referendum. The third would cap how much the city managers who follow Sculley can earn, and force them to step down after eight years.

That last one is a textbook example of taking the fight too personally.

“These petitions didn’t come out of nowhere. This has been building since 2013,” said Brockhouse, who opposes the proposal dealing with the city manager position, but supports the other two. “I’m surprised (union leaders) waited as long as they did.”

City leaders blew an opportunity to forestall this charter vote by bargaining with the union over the evergreen lawsuit.

It’s probably too late, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little hope left.

City council has until August 20 to put the three charter proposals on the ballot. If the combatants could reach a deal on the evergreen lawsuit – as in, the city drops it – maybe the city and union could settle on ballot language so bad nobody in their right mind would vote for it. A few City Hall insiders have floated this idea.

Wait. Apologies for that momentary lapse into fantasy.

A compromise like that would require at least a whisper of goodwill. But for four years now, there’s only been shouting.

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