SAN ANTONIO – The head of the San Antonio fire union stood silently in his own union hall Thursday, refusing to answer reporters' questions as his own news conference devolved into a shouting match.
The news conference, which was called by the fire union, came the day after Chris Steele failed to respond to KSAT's invitation to debate Mayor Ron Nirenberg on live TV and after news of a secret audio file, allegedly of Steele speaking to firefighters earlier this year, made the rounds in local media. However, after making some opening remarks, Steele clammed up and turned the news conference over to Reinette King, who was previously offered up as a representative for a debate last month, and David Van Os, a local attorney.
The fire union has been the driving force behind three controversial, proposed charter amendments that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. Despite his presence as the face of the campaign, Steele stood tight-lipped on Thursday as the two volunteers, Van Os especially, ran interference to reporters’ questions.
Many of the questions had to do with a 49-second audio recording released by the opposition, "Go Vote No" campaign, allegedly of Steele talking to firefighters earlier this year about the amendments.
The three propositions would make it easier to get referendum votes onto the ballot to overturn City Council decisions, allow the fire union to call for binding arbitration in contract negotiations and would limit the city manager's pay and term of service.
Hear the recording by clicking here.
Though Steele has said publicly the amendments are about the people of San Antonio, he appears to convey a different message in the recording:
"OK. This is what's going on. So it's really a campaign tactic, but it's also a lobbying tactic to get city council to back us in three things. So everything we're doing here, the strategic objective is to get us a contract within the next year. The second, the tactical objectives is: get the city to drop the lawsuit, get the city to negotiate fairly - because at the end of this, when we go to the table, they can do like they did in mediation. They can just jack us around. What they did in mediation, and what you saw - let me get the third thing. The third thing is, set it up to where May of 2019 we can put our own guy in the Mayor's office, which would be Greg Brockhouse in the Mayor's Office."
Van Os said "we're knowledgeable about this also" when Steele first ducked questions about the recording, though he said later he had not heard it.
Steele also refused to respond directly to questions about why he did not respond to KSAT's invitation to debate Nirenberg over the amendments.
In his opening remarks, Steele said they have replied to debate invitations with a letter or response offering up a representative. He claimed "that was just communicated to the debate request from KSAT 12."
However, KSAT's invitation was only for Steele and Nirenberg and specifically forbade any proxies or substitutions. Nor did KSAT receive the letter to which Steele referred until after Thursday's news conference. His deadline to respond to the Sept. 25 offer was at 5 p.m. on Oct. 3.
It was not the first time Steele has ducked a debate. The union president was supposed to debate Nirenberg in September at an event hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio and the San Antonio Express News. However, he pulled out at the last minute, and King was offered as a substitute.
Steele eventually wrapped up Thursday's news conference, ignoring more shouted questions, and walked out of the room.