By San Antonio Express-News
Now that the fire union’s three proposed city charter amendments have qualified for the November ballot, the hard work begins for community and business leaders to educate voters about their consequences.
This will have to be a million-dollar education campaign. Make no mistake, the proposed charter amendments would take a wrecking ball to city government.
They sound populist and democratic, but they would limit the city’s ability to attract top talent and undermine elected representation, giving immense leverage to outside groups just like the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, which, not coincidentally, has managed to put this on the ballot.
Turnout will likely be high for the November midterms, but many voters will probably be more educated about federal and statewide races, not arcane city charter changes. Adding to the challenge is the populist appeal of the changes. They sound good, but they are the policy equivalent to Scud missiles.
One proposal would lengthen the amount of time to collect signatures for referenda, and reduce the number of signatures needed from about 75,000 to 20,000. It would also allow for referenda over City Council decisions for taxes and utility rates.
While this has the appearance of giving the public more influence, it’s really about giving the union or another powerful outside entity more influence over council decisions. It would be very easy for the fire union to threaten City Council with a referendum over a budget decision as a way to extract concessions in, say, a contract dispute. And the fire union is very much in a contract dispute with the city.
Another proposal would cap the city manager’s salary to 10 times that of the lowest-paid full-time city employee. Again, this could sound appealing to many voters. After all, City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s compensation is a constant flash point in the community. But it’s a nonsensical and arbitrary proposal.
Compensation for the city’s top executive has nothing to do with compensation for the city’s lowest-paid employee. This proposal would also term-limit the city manager to eight years and require contracts to be approved by a supermajority of council.
This would significantly inhibit the city’s ability to attract talent. What dynamic executive — say someone who maintains a AAA bond rating, saving taxpayers millions every year — would work in San Antonio knowing his or her pay would be arbitrarily capped? Why would it be in the city’s best interest to arbitrarily term-limit a dynamic and capable leader? It makes no sense.
Besides, there is already plenty of accountability in the system. If City Council is unhappy with the city manager, it can fire that person. If the voters are unhappy with Council’s decisions, they can vote those people out of office.
It does happen.
Lastly, a third proposal would require the city to enter binding arbitration with the fire union over contract disputes. This would not remotely be in taxpayers’ interests.
These proposals are not the product of some altruistic desire for good governance. These proposals are the product of a prolonged contract dispute between the city and the fire union, which has never come to the table to negotiate with the city.
It’s worth noting, the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association negotiated a very favorable contract with the city that included a 3 percent lump sum bonus, a wage increase of 14 percent over four years and minor, but necessary, cost shifts on health care.
Should these proposals pass, they would be detrimental to the functioning of city government. For whatever reason, the fire union believes that will help its cause.
Voters need to soundly reject these proposals.