“The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.” Elena Gorokhova, A Mountain Of Crumbs.
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell, 1984
Author Elena Gorokhova grew up in Russia in the ’60s and ’70s before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The deception and lies perpetuated by San Antonio city leaders in their VoteNO campaign take a page out of the Soviet Big Brother playbook. O’Brien of the Thought Police in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, would understand.
Informed voters in San Antonio are well aware of the hardball mudslinging going on by city officials, starting with Mayor Nirenberg and members of the City Council, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, the San Antonio Express News which is virtually the press office of the Mayor and City Council, and their business cronies feeding at the trough of lucrative city contracts wheeling and dealing with quid pro quos.
This partnership of Machiavellis will do everything to defeat the charter amendments organized by citizens groups in San Antonio seeking accountability and transparency in government. The VOTENO signs symbolize the fake Alice in Wonderland arguments they are using to mislead voters with gross misinformation and scare tactics. Why the apoplectic reaction from public servants and the business elite in this city to the charter amendment resolutions allowing city residents – whom they serve – the ability to weigh in on critical decisions that affect all our lives? They’re scared to death their future business deals will get derailed like the VIA streetcar construction project that was estimated to cost $280 million for a 5.9 mile system or the costly $3+ billion Vista Ridge water pipeline project.
According to Reinette King, spokesperson for the VOTE YES campaign, “the negative (VOTENO) campaign is being funded by commercial real estate developers and other special interests who have close ties to City Manager Sculley and the Mayor, and are angling for lucrative development deals with the city. If Propositions A, B, and C pass, these groups will also lose some of their clout over our elected officials, while we will gain the ability to exercise checks and balances on bad deals and higher taxes.”
First of all Mayor Nirenberg and his allies have targeted San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA) President Chris Steele as the hate object and bad guy. In actuality while SAPFA has a big bone to pick with City Manager Sculley for waging an extended legal war against the Firefighters during collective bargaining for a new contract which has led to a four year impasse, the charter amendments especially Propositions A and B are citizen driven initiatives. Watchdog organizations like the League of Independent Voters of Texas (LIV), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the San Antonio Making Bureaucracies Accountable (SAMBA), El Conservador and others are major advocates for these common sense reforms. City Manager Sculley and her lawyers tried three times in court going all the way to the state Supreme Court to squash the charter amendments. After spending $2 million of taxpayers’ funds on the lawsuits using high priced lawyers, the city failed all three times.
LIE NUMBER ONE:
The VOTENO website explains that “Proposition C is a brazen power grab. It gives the firefighters union the unilateral power to walk away from the negotiating table and hand the process to an unelected arbitrator.”
Not true. In fact the Charter Amendment Proposition C if voters approve it will require the City and Firefighters to go back to the negotiating table after a four year impasse to resolve their differences through binding arbitration with a three party arbitration board, each party selecting an arbitrator of their choice and a third neutral arbitrator chosen by the two arbitrators. Does this sound like a one sided attempt by the Firefighters to force the City into submission? Apparently the Mayor, City Council members, their business cronies headed by Gordon Hartman who spearheads and has partially bankrolled the political action committee (Secure San Antonio’s Future PAC also called the VOTENO PAC dedicated to defeating the city charter amendments) think so. Gordon Hartman, a wealthy real estate developer, has in at least one instance benefited financially from an $18 million land sale to the County/City for a soccer complex.
LIE NUMBER TWO:
Christian Archer, Campaign Manager for the VOTENO PAC, lied during a July Northeast Neighborhood Alliance meeting when he said the Moody’s bond rating service warned that the city’s debt would be downgraded if the charter amendments were introduced. Stan Mitchell of the watchdog group SAMBA verified that Moody’s July report did not even mention the three proposed Charter amendments.
I called and left two messages over the past few weeks with Christian Archer, campaign manager for VOTENO, to ask him about the VOTENO negative ADs but I have yet to receive a response.
LIE NUMBER THREE:
The question is asked on the VOTENO website: ” Should 3% of voters dictate decisions that impact our entire city?” This is clearly a misrepresentation of the Charter Amendment Proposition A which amends the city charter to allow San Antonio voters the opportunity to remedy or correct city decisions or petition a change in policies. Today an extremely burdensome process requires petitioners to collect 70,000 or more validated signatures within 40 days. The charter amendment would reduce the number of signatures needed to put a amendment on the ballot to 20,000 gathered within a reasonable time frame of 180 days. But it would be the voters who would decide to pass the amendment not the petition signers. Read Pastor Gerald Ripley’s commentary in this newsletter about the cumbersome process to correct the 2013 Bathroom Bill. According to Reinette King, spokesperson for the VOTE YES initiative, “the ultimate decision to overturn a vote by the City Council will be decided by the 652,465 registered voters in San Antonio.”
Voters should be aware that Proposition A seeks to roll back the requirements to allow citizens to submit petitions for voter approval if 20,000 or 10% of qualified voters in the last election (whichever is less) sign the petition. This standard is consistent with the Texas State statute on charter amendments under Local Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle A, Chapter 9, Sec. 9.0004(a). Actually Proposition A sets a higher bar of 10% while the state calls for 5%. The City of Austin’s requirement for valid signatures is identical to the state’s code: 5% of qualified voters or 20,000 signatures whichever is smaller. See Austin’s City Charter requirements Austin maintains a AAA bond rating and city leaders do not use fear mongering tactics to manipulate and misinform the voters. The burning question is why do the political and business leaders in San Antonio demand an outrageously high barrier to citizen-led charter amendment proposals that is out of step with the state and other local governments and insist on obstructing responsible citizens groups from doing their part in overseeing city governance? This is America! This is Texas!
In fact even referendum happy California residents has done well with citizen driven initiatives. in 1978 the Jarvis-Gann ballot initiative known as Proposition 13 called the “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation”, was approved by the majority of voters to limit tax property to 1% of current assessed value in 1978 and annual increases pegged to inflation but capped at 2%. While that was a statewide initiative, municipalities in Texas are unrestrained in raising property taxes at this time.
Why should the voters and residents of San Antonio be given the opportunity to address bad decisions by the City Council? Recall the massive effort to defeat the VIA Streetcar boondoggle in 2015. The City Council, County officials and their allies got a bloody nose in that successful initiative led by the Streetcar Initiative Coalition which required voter approval of any streetcar project first. The City and County officials and their business cronies who stood to make millions on the huge construction projects involved in tearing up city streets and constructing new train tracks are the same parties working overtime to defeat the 2018 charter amendments. Read the VOTENO Donor List. You will find longtime corporate partners of the City like Zachry Construction who donated $50,000 to the negative campaign. Zachry Corp. of San Antonio and partner were awarded the $325 million Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center expansion design/build project in September 2012.
LIE NUMBER FOUR:
The Charter Amendments will endanger the City’s favorable AAA bond rating which gives the City the ability to borrow money at the lowest cost to taxpayers. Not true. This is an unsubstantiated argument. There are three major bond rating services – Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard and Poor’s. Sculley understands the ratings game, according to Stan Mitchell of SAMBA, the watchdog organization. In effect the rating service companies are paid “debt service fund” fees and serious allegations suggest their reports could be manipulated for a fee to accommodate their client. Conflict of interest appears to be a question that auditors and the Securities Exchange Commission should be looking at to ensure objectivity and honesty in the fiduciary responsibility of the rating companies. Mitchell pointed out in his September 6th letter to the City Council and Josh Baugh of the Express News the following concern:
“The Commission should consider preparing rules that would more directly address the conflicts that arise when rating agencies are paid by the very issuers of the products they rate. This conflict of interest continues to jeopardize the quality of credit ratings today.” The Department of Justice fined Moody’s $486 million for failing to rate mortgage-backed securities “openly and honestly,” as announced in the DoJ’s January 13, 2017 Press Release, “contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
Are the bond rating companies in fact maintaining their objectivity to protect the interests of taxpayers and the residents of municipalities or are they submitting to manipulations of city leaders and city managers for financial gain? In any event, the reply to Mitchell’s inquiries was “crickets” from the City Council and Express News. So much for the responsibility of the Press to objectively report and investigate city government waste, corruption, and cronyism.
What about the City’s bond rating and the performance of Sheryl Sculley as City Manager? In fact the city has had a favorable bond rating for a long time before City Manager Sculley was hired according to Reinette King. Moody’s Report in July does not mention any risk from the charter amendments impacting the city’s bond rating. Rather, the rating service calls out key factors to a municipality receiving the highest AAA rating: The local government’s ability to pay its debts, a growing and vibrant economy, stable employment trends, significant revenue raising flexibility, strong population growth. However Moody’s expresses concern about the city’s “elevated debt profile” which is higher than other recipients of the AAA rating.
LIE NUMBER FIVE:
The Charter Amendments will increase taxes and reduce or eliminate city services according to the VOTENO PAC. Not true. Although I’m not a resident within the city boundaries, I have received as direct mail at least five very costly, 8 1/2 by 11 negative ads so far from the VOTENO campaign attacking the motives of the citizen groups advocating the charter amendments as a “special interest tax grab”. Furthermore VOTENO proponents claim the amendments will “slash city services for seniors and take power out of our hands.” Who are these “special interests”? How exactly will services to senior be slashed because of the charter changes? I talked with a VOTE YES supporter at the John Igo Library polling place on Monday who is a precinct chair with the Democrat party. I was told that seniors there were being warned that the charter amendments would jeopardize their social security benefits. This is an outrageous lie.
Why should the City Council and City Manager Sculley raise taxes when the booming economy and the non-stop influx of new residents, new businesses, new employers and employees, new utility rate payers, new builders, construction workers, etc. etc. are raising property and sales tax revenues as well as millions in CPS and SAWs ratepayer revenues flowing into the city coffers. Any freshman Economics 101 student would inform you AND the City Manager, Gordon Hartman, and Mayor Nirenberg that new businesses and residents’ disposable income spending for furniture, grocery, clothing, automobiles generate huge revenues for businesses and increase tax revenues that pour into City bank accounts as well. This is the wonderful thing about growing economies called the “multiplier effect”.
The watchdog group, SAMBA, whose members have nothing to gain directly other than fulfilling their mission to hold city government leaders accountable fully support the amendments. The League of Independent Voters of Texas, another watchdog organization, has weighed in to support the charter changes. Are the Firefighters Association a special interest group? The Firefighters Association provided the necessary leadership with their manpower to ensure enough signatures were gathered within a limited time required to ensure the amendments were placed on the November ballot. Their only interest according to Mr. Chris Steele, President of the association, is to ensure their members are paid a fair wage with reasonable increases to cover rising insurance premiums which is why the association is fighting for binding arbitration in Proposition C. He believes his members’ salaries are below market value compared to other Firefighters Associations outside San Antonio.
Follow the Money
In fact special interests allied with the City’s leaders are behind the VOTENO campaign. As mentioned, wealthy real estate magnate Gordon Hartman would stand to gain by maintaining the status quo with a powerful City Council and Manager controlling all major decisions without sufficient public input. Why would the past mayors be behind the VOTENO campaign? Recall how the lucrative streetcar construction project was stopped by citizen watchdogs. Former Mayor Hardberger lobbied and successfully inserted his Hardberger Park critter land bridge in the 2017 $850 million municipal bond package. Hardberger was a major cheerleader for Nirenberg’s election as Mayor. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros has extensive business dealings including urban dwelling projects in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and New York. If you’ve heard about USAA’s support of the VOTENO campaign, consider that the corporation received a major $6 million tax abatement/incentive package from the city in return for relocating 2,000 employees to the downtown area within the next five years.
LIE NUMBER SIX:
The VOTENO campaign states that the city “will lose our ability to obtain top-level talent for the City Manager position in the future.” It is stated that losing the management skills of Sheryl Sculley will result in lowering the city’s high bond rating and lower the “caliber of our leadership.” Not true.
In actuality city leaders and City Manager Sculley have been spending like out of control drunken sailors which is why Moody’s recent report underscored the city’s elevated debt as a red flag, stating that one of the key factors leading to a downgrade is “increasing debt levels absent a corresponding taxable value growth.”
San Antonio’s economy is sound and growing due not to Manager Sculley’s job performance but to other factors stated in Moody’s report. A strong economy generates tax revenues that cover the City’s debts. New employers and employees are moving to Texas and San Antonio is a major player among other cities. The state’s climate, no state income tax, strong tourist base, low cost of living especially residential and commercial real estate, a large military presence and health and medical care affiliated enterprises, manufacturing plants, mid-sized business enterprises employing thousands are among the main drivers to San Antonio’s robust, diverse economy. However quality of life has also been impacted by the accelerated population influx without the corresponding timely infrastructure improvements.
Susan Combs, Texas State Controller at the time in 2012, published a report stating that San Antonio leads Texas’ major cities in per capita debt with Austin and Houston trailing. (Reference article) San Antonio’s municipal debt continues to climb from the level of $9.4 billion in 2012 plus additional debt from the nearly $1 billion municipal bond (debt service added) passed in 2017, the largest bond passed in the city’s history. According to this referenced article, Sculley has presided as city manager in acquiring nearly $2 billion in city debt since she arrived.
According to Stan Mitchell from the SAMBA watchdog group, the city’s outstanding debt as risen to $18 billion as reported by the Texas Comptroller as of August 31, 2018. The city paid $482 million in interest cost and debt issuance in 2017. So the lie perpetuated by the VOTENO campaign is that the charter amendments are causing the financial risk to the city when in fact it rests with the profligate spending by the City Council and City Manager.
In Mitchell’s opinion as stated in his September 6th letter to the City Council members:
“Sculley supporters equate high bond ratings with good management but the real source of our AAA ratings is the 30.6% of city revenues (in 2016) provided by CPS, whose city payment was funded by a “stealth tax” included in our utility billing that taxpayers have never approved.”
Is Sheryl Sculley’s compensation commensurate and competitive with her peers? Does the City Council evaluate her annual performance? Do they perform salary and benefits benchmarking with other like municipalities? It appears they do not. Consider that City Manager Sculley’s compensation tops $575,000. The City has 12,000 employees. She is reputed to be the highest compensated city manager in the nation.
Sculley has SIX Assistant and Deputy City managers – Eric Walsh, Peter Zanoni, Carlos Contreras, Maria Villagomez, Lori Houston, Rod Sanchez – running the city of San Antonio reporting to her. Her City Manager’s Office salaries top $2.1 million a year. Her assistant and deputy city managers each make an average of $250,000 a year in salaries. She has other office assistants – John Peterek, her assistant who makes $100K, Javier Vasquez, an executive assistant who makes $75K PLUS a special projects manager. These are 2017 figures. Incidentally another highly compensated city employee is Sarah Paray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA. Her salary is $247,000. Has anyone evaluated the performance of the Obama-backed Julian Castro Pre-K program and the costs involved in starting up and maintaining this program? What are the program’s accomplishments? The City’s proposed budget for 2019 is $2.8 billion.
In contrast the City Manager of Dallas is compensated $395,000. He oversees 13,000 city employees. The Dallas city budget is $3.6 billion and he has four assistant managers. The City of Houston is managed by the mayor and city council. The city’s budget in 2019 is $4.9 billion. The Mayor’s salary is $235,000. He manages 20,000+ employees. The City of Austin manages the city plus the city’s utilities. His salary is $325,000. He has 5 assistant managers and 15,000 employees.
Reinette King, spokesperson of VOTE YES, comments:
“WalletHub.com compared the operating efficiency of 150 of the largest U.S. cities to learn how well city officials manage and spend public funds by comparing quality of services residents receive against the city’s total budget. San Antonio ranks 99th out of 150 and the lowest among major Texas cities. San Antonio ranks 115th in safety and 88th in public infrastructure.”
Charter Amendment Proposition B which calls for a super majority vote (2/3) of the city council members to approve of the candidate applying for the city manager’s job is worthy of our support. This would mean there would be a clear consensus among the mayor and ten council members that they agree on the candidate, his/her qualifications, experience, and accomplishments. In my view, this is one of the most important job responsibilities the city council members have.
Public safety is the most critical responsibility of city officials. How is City Manager Sculley’s job performance to be judged considering she depends on a huge staff of managers and over 12,000 thousand employees plus contractors? Are potholes being fixed, sidewalks where they should be? Street lights, street signs maintained? Flooding areas examined and fixed? Her performance in negotiating a new contract with the Firefighters Association is an abysmal failure. According to her supporters, the Firefighters have been unreasonable and their proposed budget will bankrupt the City. According to the Firefighters’ leaders, the San Antonio public safety budget as a percentage of the city’s total budget is the lowest compared with other cities, i.e. members, fire stations, vehicles, equipment.
However City Manager Sculley, according to Firefighters Association leaders, has transferred a significant portion (estimated at $900 million) out of the general and operating budget to a restricted and special funds account which she controls as a discretionary bank account. This shell game inflates the public safety budget as a percentage of the operating budget. This budget shell game is a sham and does a great disservice to the City’s first responders and residents who rely on high standards of public safety. Other questionable decisions by city management include the extravagant spending on a new Public Safety headquarters building ($80 million), higher priced fire trucks, rewarding developers with extraordinary $8 million contracts for fire stations are some of the major grievances of the Firefighters against Sculley’s management decisions. There is also frustration with the lies perpetuated about the reliability of the city’s computer-aided dispatch system which often goes down.
Sheryl Sculley has worked to advance bigger government overreach through annexation, increased the city’s already high debt load, hired Police Chief William McManus twice who is under investigation by the state Attorney General for defying the state sanctuary city ban, worked to pass the 2013 “Bathroom Bill” to allow males in women’s restrooms. She paved the way twice for a Planned Parenthood abortionist, Jinda Woo, to be appointed the city’s highest health authority. Sculley’s Development Services Department office under Director, Rod Sanchez, violated the city’s own zoning rules to fast track and protect the stealthy Planned Parenthood mega abortion center building construction on Babcock without neighborhood input and approval. After violating his own department’s zoning regulations, Sanchez was rewarded with a promotion to Assistant City Manager.
It is this writer’s opinion that the people of San Antonio need a change in leadership. City Hall and Big Business are feathering their own beds and enriching themselves at the expense of working class San Antonians. Charter Amendment A will be a critical instrument for the people to have a voice in city politics and public policy decisions. The current City Manager is working at cross purposes with the conservative agenda of the Texas Governor, Lt. Governor, and conservative members of the state legislature.
She has worked to amass tremendous power benefiting the local government and their big business cronies. Our budget is bloated with public sector employees, extravagant spending, waste and fat. The City needs to cut its budget, its full time employee headcount especially management, and be held accountable for all wasteful spending. No more annexation of neighboring local governments. Property tax rates should be substantially reduced not one time but annually to offset higher city revenues generated by population growth, new businesses and jobs pouring into San Antonio, rising appraisals and commensurate higher real estate property tax burdens piled on the backs of working class San Antonians. Residential property valuations climbed by over 8% between 2017 and 2018.
Governor Greg Abbott has published major property tax reform recommendations starting with a property tax revenue growth cap of 2.5% per year. The officials of the City of San Antonio and Bexar County should get with the program and look out for the best interest of the people they serve not continually fatten their own cows and those of special interests. That’s what they are elected and paid to do and that’s what looking out for the common good means!
“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:4-6)
Do not let the lies, distortions, and deceit of the VOTENO campaign beguile and mislead you.
VOTE “FOR” the CITY OF SAN ANTONIO CHARTER AMENDMENTS PROPOSITIONS A, B, C