Im­por­tant choices ahead for the city

San Antonio Express-News - - FROM THE COVER -

San An­to­nio vot­ers de­liv­ered a split de­ci­sion on the fire union’s three char­ter change propo­si­tions — and in­jected chaos into the city.

Vot­ers shot down Propo­si­tion A, which would have low­ered the sig­na­ture thresh­old for ref­er­en­dums from 75,000 to 20,0000, and opened the door for spe­cial in­ter­ests to have their way with city poli­cies.

It was pitched as giv­ing voice to the peo­ple, but ku­dos to vot­ers for see­ing through this. It would have opened the door for spe­cial in­ter­ests to have their way at City Hall on any is­sue, in­clud­ing taxes and util­ity rates. This vote was cru­cial for pre­serv­ing the city’s AAA bond rat­ing and main­tain­ing eco­nomic vi­tal­ity.

Vot­ers over­whelm­ingly en­dorsed Propo­si­tion B, which will cap the com­pen­sa­tion and ten­ure of the next city man­ager. And they nar­rowly en­dorsed Propo­si­tion C, giv­ing the San An­to­nio Pro­fes­sional Fire­fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion the sole right to de­clare an im­passe in con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with the city, send­ing the mat­ter to ar­bi­tra­tion. Res­i­dents will have to live with the reper­cus­sions of these de­ci­sions, which might take years to truly man­i­fest.

Propo­si­tion B had strong pop­ulist ap­peal, and was al­most cer­tain to pass. But let’s be clear-eyed about its im­pact. Propo­si­tion B will make it in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult for the city to at­tract and re­tain fu­ture man­age­ment tal­ent. Who would take a job that at max­i­mum will last eight years and has an ar­ti­fi­cial salary cap? Some­one, no doubt. Time will tell if that’s the best “some­one.” Propo­si­tion C is a give­away to the fire union. It means the fire union will never have to ne­go­ti­ate with the city on a new con­tract. This only ap­plies to the fire union, but it will have ma­jor con­se­quences for the city’s bud­get in terms of health care and pen­sion costs.

But these two propo­si­tions have passed, so now what?

The most press­ing ques­tion re­lates to the fu­ture of City Man­ager Sh­eryl Scul­ley. Should she stay on? One of the ironies of this split de­ci­sion is that Propo­si­tion B does not ap­ply to Scul­ley. That means Mayor Ron Niren­berg and City Coun­cil could re­new Scul­ley’s con­tract and de­lay the ef­fects of Propo­si­tion B. This has merit. It would pro­vide sta­bil­ity, but it also would come with po­lit­i­cal risk.

In the eyes of many, Propo­si­tion B was very much a ref­er­en­dum on Scul­ley, and Niren­berg is up for re-elec­tion in May. Scul­ley has been an ef­fec­tive and vi­sion­ary city man­ager, but the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic is in­escapable. Then again, who would take this job with such ar­bi­trary caps on salary and ten­ure?

The other lin­ger­ing ques­tion is what hap­pens with the fire con­tract. As of this writ­ing, it’s un­clear if Propo­si­tion C ap­plies to this con­tract, or the next round of ne­go­ti­a­tions. It’s also pos­si­ble Propo­si­tion C might be sub­ject to a le­gal chal­lenge. What­ever the case, in an ideal world, both sides would look at this split de­ci­sion, sit down and come to a con­tract agree­ment. Af­ter all, the mar­gin for Propo­si­tion C was ra­zor thin. You have to squint to see a man­date.

But city pol­i­tics is hardly ideal. In four years, the union has never agreed to ne­go­ti­ate with the city. It should have. But the city and Niren­berg are hardly blame­less. Niren­berg should have pri­or­i­tized this con­tract when he was elected two years ago. Mean­while, the city stuck with a law­suit over an ever­green clause in the fire union’s con­tract — and lost. It could have dropped the suit and ne­go­ti­ated.

But hind­sight is al­ways crys­tal clear. The chal­lenge now is to find a way for­ward af­ter this vote. Mayor, Coun­cil: What are the city’s op­tions to mit­i­gate the dam­age?

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