'Baseless,' 'disappointed': Council members challenge fire union president's leaked remarks

Second portion of fire union president recording leaked week after first

SAN ANTONIO – Some San Antonio City Council members are refuting claims made in a leaked audio recording of Fire Union President Chris Steele telling firefighters that he has five city council members' "solid votes" on fire union initiatives.

The audio, released Tuesday by the Go Vote No campaign -- which opposes the union-backed charter amendments -- features Steele telling firefighters that the "stars are lining up" for the union.


In the recording, Steele tells firefighters the union has "five solid votes" and proceeds to list off the names of council members Greg Brockhouse, Ana Sandoval, Manny Pelaez, Clayton Perry and Shirley Gonzales.

According to Go Vote No political strategist Christian Archer, the audio was secretly captured by a San Antonio firefighter who is sharing pieces of the audio with Archer incrementally on the condition of anonymity. Another clip was released to the media last week.

KSAT has not been given the opportunity to listen to the recording in its entirety. 

Archer said the recording was captured during a meeting at a fire station early this year, though the exact date of the meeting is unclear.

Archer said via phone he believes, but is not certain, that Steele was addressing firefighters, asking them to contribute more money to a political action committee associated with the charter amendment campaign. However, the charter amendment issue will be decided by San Antonio voters on Nov. 6, not City Council.

Instead, City Council will be the ultimate approval on a new collective bargaining agreement, which has been at an impasse for years.

Read the transcript of the new audio released Tuesday:

The stars are lining up, I knew we just had to wait for a little while -- I'll talk about that in a little bit, but understand that I can go (indiscernible) now.

The city is probably not gonna agree and I hope they wouldn't. They're not going to agree to an arbitrator because everything they have said has been a lie and the arbitrator is going to see that the city has money, that the city has no business filing a lawsuit, that the insurance is great the way it is -- they're gonna see it all. 

So the city -- for their advantage, they don't want arbitration, but we're gonna have council on our side. 

We got five solid votes now. Five solid. Greg Brockhouse is six, he's heading that up. Ana Sandoval at seven, Manny Pelaez at eight, Clayton Perry at 10 and Shirley Gonzales is five. They're solid. Sculley can't even make a dent in them at this point. So we're in a better position than we have been in many years, with council, but we don't have six though.

Council members Ana Sandoval, Manny Pelaez and Shirley Gonzales spoke at a Go Vote No press conference Tuesday to further refute Steele's assertion that they are "solid votes" in favor of union initiatives.

All of the council members named in the recording, save for Brockhouse, refuted Steele's remarks.

Steele accuses city of sitting in on union meetings for more than a year, accuses city officials of playing games

Steele sent KSAT the following statement Tuesday after the audio was leaked:

"The city has apparently had someone taping our meetings for more than a year. And yet they have nothing. It has become blatantly obvious that Sheryl Sculley and the special interests who run city hall play games like that while potholes go unfixed and (the fire department) doesn’t have a contract. Do you need anymore proof about who these council people actually work for?"

Brockhouse challenges Go Vote No to release full audio, believes snippets are deceptive

Brockhouse told KSAT via phone Tuesday that the separate recordings are deceptive and a "cheap tactic" by the Go Vote No campaign to garner media attention.

He said that based on the transcript of the minute of audio released by the charter amendment opposition group, he believes Steele was talking about the lawsuit the city filed against the union challenging the evergreen clause in the contract between the two, which expired in 2014. 

He added that it appears as though Steele was expecting those candidates whom the union had endorsed to, in turn, support union efforts. 

"It's basically them talking about their endorsees and that they feel they have their support, and guess what? It turns out, obviously, that they didn't because the city didn't drop the lawsuit and the council members have not pushed as a whole to finalize the contract," Brockhouse said.

He said he believes "suing the firefighters is the worst thing we've done."

Brockhouse said the political "game" has embarrassed the city and invited Mayor Ron Nirenberg to debate the charter amendments. KSAT and other media outlets have offered to host debates between Nirenberg and Steele. However, Steele has declined each invitation, instead offering a union representative to debate the issue.

Brockhouse said the secret recordings are "underhanded" and that many within the union are still puzzled as to when and where the meeting from the audio occurred, adding that the snippets are so short, it's hard to determine.

Tuesday's recording is the second snippet of audio released by the Go Vote No campaign. Early last week, Go Vote No released audio of Steele telling firefighters of his plan to get councilman Greg Brockhouse elected mayor.


Pelaez calls charter amendments 'misguided' and 'really bad policy initiatives'

Pelaez told KSAT in a phone interview Tuesday morning that he was "sad and disappointed" by the recording.

"My support for firefighters has been mischaracterized as support for some of the antics that we're seeing and these really misguided, dangerous propositions that are going to be on our ballot Nov. 6, so when I read (the transcript of Steele's remarks), the first thing I thought to myself was it's really irresponsible to tell people you own the votes of certain City Council members," Pelaez said. "My vote doesn't belong to a single political operative or any special interest group.

"My vote only belongs to the constituents whom I represent. My allegiance is to the people who expect me to bring them safe streets, clean parks, uninterrupted city services, a balanced budget and a triple A bond rating."

Pelaez added that first responders will always have his unequivocal support and that he believes in working to ensure they have good working conditions, benefits, equipment and fair wages.

"That does not mean I support really bad policy initiatives that are going to impact our ability to manage the city," Pelaez said.

Sandoval says she's met Steele once in her life, never discussed fire union issues

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval sent KSAT the following statement:

"My vote on Council will always be guided by what is best for the residents of District 7 and the residents of San Antonio, whom I’ve committed to serve," Sandoval wrote. "I’ve met Mr. Steele once in my life – months before I ever took office – and we did not discuss this issue. For him to say he has my vote locked up is baseless."

Audio shows Steele made assumptions, Perry says

Councilman Clayton Perry sent KSAT the following statement about the recording:

"In reading this transcript, we believe that these statements are in regard to the fire union contract and not the proposed charter amendments. However, we believe that the assumptions made by Chief Steele are just that. Councilman Perry has not come forward in support or against the fire union negotiations.

"In regard to the charter amendments, we have no statement at this time."

Gonzales says she supports firefighters, not propositions

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales sent KSAT the following statement:

“While I have always backed the San Antonio fire fighters and have been their strongest supporter in City Hall, I have stated since these propositions came to light that I cannot stand with them on this one issue.
“I strongly believe the propositions will harm our city’s economy and representative form of government.”


The Fair Contracting Coalition held a meeting on Tuesday morning. Among the items discussed was its decision to draft a letter to send to Archer and Mayor Ron Nirenberg asking that they discontinue what they called "character assassinations" of Steele.

On Monday, the Fair Contracting Coalition sent an email to members of the media stating Nirenberg and Archer's attacks were racially motivated. Archer declined to comment on the statement and Nirenberg did not return a request for comment.

T.C. Calvert, who headed Tuesday's meeting, said the group has not taken a position on the amendments, but is disturbed by the Go Vote No campaign's decision to frame the issues around Steele and his history as a San Antonio Firefighter.

"We need black role models," Calvert said, adding that city officials, most notably Nirenberg, are "eating their own" by attacking the character of Steele, a longtime San Antonio Firefighter.

"It isn't about Christopher Steele, it's about the issue at hand," Calvert said the Tuesday meeting.

Calvert passionately shouted, "Talk about the issues!" while addressing meeting attendees. He said the City has refused to debate "common people" on the issues, referring to the union offering up a spokesman to debate the issues with a representative of the Go Vote No campaign. 

"They put their lives on the line just like police put their lives on the line," Calvert said. "Show some respect for this man."

What do the charter amendments say and what will happen if they are approved?

Read the ballot language and more about what happens if the amendments are approved

The City of San Antonio has provided the ballot language on their website, and what happens if they are approved.


Shall the City Charter be amended to expand the types of ordinances that may be subject to referendum including appropriation of money, levying a tax, granting a franchise, fixing public utility rates, zoning and rezoning of property; increase the number of days within which a petition may be filed seeking a referendum on an ordinance passed by council from forty to one hundred eighty days after passage of the ordinance; and to provide that no more than twenty thousand signatures of registered voters are required for a referendum petition instead of ten percent of those electors qualified to vote at the last regular municipal election?


Shall the City Charter be amended to limit the term the City Manager may serve to no longer than eight years, limit the compensation of the City Manager to no more than ten times the annual salary furnished to the lowest paid full-time city employee, and to require a supermajority vote to appoint the City Manager?


Shall the City Charter be amended to provide the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 624 with unilateral authority to require the City to participate in binding arbitration of all issues in dispute with the Association within forty-five days of the City’s receipt of the Association’s written arbitration request?

If Proposition A is approved...

Proposition A: Expanding the Referendum Process.

This measure would:

Expand the City Council actions subject to referendum to include appropriating money, levying taxes, setting public utility rates, and zoning or rezoning property (all areas currently excluded by Charter);
Decrease the number of signatures needed from 10 percent of qualified voters in the last municipal election (approximately 70,000 signatures) to 20,000 signatures; and
Lengthen the time frame for obtaining the needed signatures from 40 days to 180 days.
This measure subjects fiscal actions, such as tax rates, utility rates and bond issues, to the referendum process limiting the ability of the City Council to consider and implement policy and to manage the budget. The uncertainty created by potential changes to revenues and expenditures would certainly negatively impact the City’s AAA bond rating. The amendment creates uncertainty resulting in cost to the City of San Antonio between $382.3 million and $4.2 billion over the next twenty years. In addition, it would create uncertainty in the area of economic development because companies looking to relocate to San Antonio and expand their operations through the use of economic development incentives may want not to face the potential uncertainty of referendums and will decide to go to another city. Based on the average size of the corporate relocation or expansion in San Antonio, this could result in a loss of 202 jobs per project.

If Proposition B is approved...

Proposition B: Term Limits and Salary Cap for City Manager.

This measure requires a supermajority vote (8 votes out of 11) to select the City Manager, limits the City Manager’s term to 8 years and limits pay to 10 times the amount of the lowest paid City employee.

Currently, the City Charter gives City Council the power to determine compensation on the basis of his/her executive and administrative qualifications. The City Manager is hired by and serves at the pleasure of the City Council. Arbitrarily limiting tenure and salary restricts the ability of the City Council to recruit and retain the best talent for the position. This measure could limit the City's ability to attract the top-level talent necessary to efficiently and effectively run a city of this size. This may lead to a reduction in the quality and quantity of public services that, combined with the uncertainty created by the other two amendments, could slow economic growth. For example, firms looking to relocate to San Antonio or expand their operations within the city may decide not to do so out of concern that the infrastructure, quality of life and other public services may not meet their needs. This measure would not impact the current contract of the City Manager.

If Proposition C is approved...

Proposition C: Binding Arbitration. This measure allows the firefighters union to unilaterally declare impasse at any time and force binding arbitration on the City in labor contract negotiations.

Currently, the Fire contract follows state law on impasse processes requiring action by both parties to negotiate in good faith first. The current process allows for a mediation option before binding arbitration by mutual agreement. Under the proposed measure, the Union could call for binding arbitration before participating in any good faith labor negotiations with the City which could have substantial negative impacts on the City’s budget. While the City Council always considers collective bargaining agreements within the context of overall budget planning and priorities, this amendment would vest a third-party arbitrator with authority to impose contract terms notwithstanding budget consideration. The arbitrator is not accountable for long term budget ramifications. Public safety already consumes about two-thirds of the budget of the City of San Antonio, and going to binding arbitration has the potential to increase this cost substantially. This will force the City of San Antonio to find other revenue sources and/or reduce public services

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