Should San Antonio Be A Weaker City?

The November ballot asks you whether to weaken San Antonio city government. The firefighters’ union-sponsored propositions will impair city activities widely. But they will specifically hobble the city in future union negotiations—which is why the union wants them.

The sales pitch may ride on general disgust with government waste and abuse, but that’s a disgust the union uses, not shares. The union devoted the time and money to get the propositions on the ballot to benefit itself, not the public generally.

Proposition A

The first proposition would expand what is subject to referenda, give referenda proponents longer to overturn an ordinance, and reduce the number of signatures required for referenda.

Matters not currently subject to referenda are appropriating money, levying a tax, and granting a franchise. Proposition A would abolish these limitations.

Most of us will never successfully get a referendum on a ballot. Only powerful groups with special interests such as the union will be able to do so. Imagine the mischief if such groups could, to benefit themselves or others they favor, force the city to spend money, levy taxes to collect the money, or grant franchises. An example of a franchise would be the right to conduct business on streets or public property.

At present, if a powerful group is unhappy with an ordinance passed by council and does not believe it can get council to overturn it, the group has forty days to gather signatures for a referendum. Forty days is short, but ordinances are how the city conducts its business. For example, an ordinance is required each time the city buys or sells real property.

If the referendum passes, the city might have to wait half a year before a purchase or sale becomes final. Title companies might be reluctant to issue title policies until a half year later. Leases for the city to occupy office space might not begin until after six months. The system would be unworkable.

Such matters don’t wait forty days now, but the referenda mechanism hasn’t previously received much notice. These propositions heighten the profile of the mechanism and make it easier to operate. That makes unwinding transactions more likely. How much money would you risk when some powerful group might be able to cause you to lose it?

Finally, the proposition would reduce the number of signatures necessary for a referendum. The irony is that the propositions themselves show this is unnecessary. The union got its propositions on the ballot with the existing signature requirement. Further, these propositions show how bad some propositions may be. Making it easier to put forward destructive propositions is a poor way to structure a government.

Vote “NO” on Proposition A.

Proposition B

The second proposition would set a salary cap for future city managers. The current manager’s salary is higher than those of previous managers. Whether salaries of future managers will revert to the historical norm I do not know, but the city is an immensely complex organization.

The current city budget is $2.8 billion, and the city has about 12,000 employees. Such an organization requires management expertise, and if in the future the council cannot pay for quality, we will not have it. The union wants a weaker manager to more easily get its way. Taxpayers should not want that.

Don’t let your view of Sheryl Sculley taint your vote. The limitation applies only to future managers, not her. Preventing city council from paying a competitive salary is a bad idea. Whatever you think of Sheryl Sculley’s salary, it is less than a rounding error in the overall budget.

Vote “NO” on Proposition B.

Proposition C

The final proposition would allow the union to force contract-renewal negotiations into arbitration. That takes away even more power from the city than is already ceded by the evergreen clause. How prostrate is the city to be before the union?

Arbitrators have a reputation for splitting the difference instead of carefully evaluating competing claims. Having served as an arbitrator myself, I know that is not always true, but the reputation did not arise by accident. That tendency makes it likely the union will demand as much as possible instead of what is reasonable.

But that’s not all the problem. The proposition does not tell us what the arbitration rules will be. No diligent lawyer would agree to arbitration without assuring the rules would be neutral. Here, we can’t tell.

Not only that, we don’t know how arbitrators will be selected. Just as neutrality is important for judges, it is likewise for arbitrators. Don’t coerce the city into potentially biased arbitrations.

These last two points mean that an arbitration result may be even worse than splitting the difference between unreasonable demands.

Vote “NO” on Proposition C.

Distrust of Government

You may distrust the city, but these propositions punish taxpayers, not city officials. It is true that the city as well as other levels of government can be abusive. But these propositions don’t fix that, and the union promoting them can be abusive itself.

As a former Assistant City Attorney, I have seen from inside the city’s disregard of taxpayers’ dollars and its politicization of what should not be political. But the propositions don’t address my complaints. They only situate the union and other organized interests to better grasp taxpayers’ money, leaving legitimate grievances unremedied.

The union wants a weaker adversary in future negotiations. Why should you want that? It’s your money they’re fighting over.