Guerra: Before you sign on to Prop. 3 reform, read the fine print
San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 11/01/2001 12:00 AM


Those who can't say "no" always end up paying more or settling for less.

But what if you're asked to lend your name to a "reform" that will enhance the city's "accountability," and a close look at this "reform" shows it legitimizes the exploitation of the city's lowest-paid workers?

On Tuesday, one of the charter amendments that will be voted on by San Antonians is Proposition 3, which emerged after a series of scandals arose when the city lost tens of millions of dollars through contracts poorly negotiated by the City Attorney's Office.

As people screamed for City Attorney Frank Garza's head, my fellow columnist Rick Casey pointed out that firing Garza wouldn't solve much since he doesn't choose his assistants because they're covered by civil service rules.
What's more, Casey noted, this violates the legal profession's ethics code that guarantees a client's right to fire his counsel at will.

Two years after these scandals made headlines, this reform is on the ballot, but it has grown to remove civil service coverage of the city's licensed professionals — from architects to veterinarians — top city staff members and "part-time and seasonal employees."

But Ordinance 94375, the official order for the special election, casts a wider net. It specifies that civil service protections will also be removed from "part-time, temporary and seasonal employees."
It's an important distinction because there are thousands of them. They're poorly paid and classified as "temps" — even though many have been working 40-hour weeks, year in and year out.

And "temps" get zero benefits.

Imagine working for years with no sick leave, paid vacations or health insurance for your family members.

Clearly, the city shouldn't force professionals to violate their ethics, but to ask us to take the few job protections we afford about 3,000 of the city's poorest workers is absolutely outrageous.

Only two years ago, former Mayor Howard Peak and former City Manager Alex Briseño said — with straight faces — that their proudest legacy was that finally, all city employees would earn a living wage of at least $8.25 an hour.
But in August, when the city's new budget was being drawn up, Service Employees International Union auditors revealed that their analysis of city payroll records had uncovered that almost one-third of the workers were paid less than the $8.25 "minimum," so they wouldn't get the 25-cent raise proposed in the new budget.

City Manager Terry Brechtel disputed SEIU's count of underpaid workers, but has yet to provide solid numbers of her own.

She also justified these workers' underpayment, saying that seasonal, part-time and temporary workers weren't part of "all employees."

When Briseño said he meant "all workers" quite literally, the rumble of backtracking was audible at City Hall. And when the new budget was approved, it included the $680,000 needed to bring wages up to $8.50.
There's another little-noticed aspect of this issue to consider: The Civil Service Code specifies that employees can't be classified as "temps" longer than 90 days.

Would you lend your name to the removal of this one — and often unhonored — protection?

You make your own decision. But as one who believes he'll be judged by how he treats the most humble among us — and having read the fine print — I'm saying "HELL NO!" to Proposition 3.

To leave a message for Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra@express-news.net. His columns appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
11/01/2001