SAN ANTONIO – Mayor Ron Nirenberg was emphatic Tuesday in his belief that if the local fire union is able to change the city charter, it would ultimately lead to a rise in taxes and undermine the decisions made by local elected leaders.
“Rather than come to the table and negotiate, the union boss is attempting to manipulate the city and burn down its system of governance,” Nirenberg said.
Last week, Chris Steele, president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, kicked off the San Antonio First campaign.
The union is trying to gather signatures on petitions to make three changes to the charter. The changes include placing restrictions on the position of city manager, including a salary cap and term limits and requiring third-party arbitration when the union and the city cannot come to an agreement.
The arbitration requirement would prohibit the city from suing the union, which the city did to challenge a portion of the now-expired contract between the union and the city.
The third proposed charter change would make it easier for voters to change city ordinances. Instead of requiring the collection of 75,000 signatures within 40 days on a petition, Steele said the requirement should be 20,000 signatures within 180 days. The latter is required to change city charter.
Steele said the threshold to put a city ordinance change and city charter change on the ballot should be the same. The union president points to San Antonio Water System rate increases as a benefit of that change, saying if voters had their way, those increases would not have been approved.
Nirenberg argues the change in signature requirements would effectively make it easier for voters to undermine the authority given to elected leaders by the voters who put them in office. He, too, points to utility rates.
“If they are subject now to a referendum process that is manipulated by a union boss in this case, or other special interest groups, then the rating agencies take note of that and end up making the cost of doing business for our public much higher,” said Nirenberg, “which is a cost to every resident in this city.”
Steele said Tuesday that he wants proof that changes in utility rates could downgrade the city’s credit rating and end up costing taxpayers more money. He maintained that the union campaign is about letting voters decide, and he trusts citizens will make the right decisions.
Steele calls Nirenberg’s response to the union campaign “misdirection.”
Nirenberg calling the campaign something similar: a distraction.
At the heart of the issue, Nirenberg said, is the union’s unwillingness to negotiate a new contract with the city.
“He’s attempting, again, to restructure city government to suit his goals,” Nirenberg said. “It's wrong."
The city has made eight attempts to negotiate a new contract with the fire union, but the union has refused.
Steele has repeatedly said he will not negotiate with the city while the city is suing the union over its contract.
Steele compared the city’s denied attempts at negotiation to a man asking out a woman who repeatedly turns him down. He likened it to stalking.