Garza says S.A. ready for change
By William Pack
Express-News Staff Writer

Web Posted : 11/06/2001 7:58 PM

Ignoring late opposition from labor groups, San Antonio voters handily approved three changes to the City Charter, giving Mayor Ed Garza the tools he says will make city government more responsive to citizens' needs.

Turnout was low, but Garza said the healthy margins of victory for each proposition should pave the way for broader reforms in the future.

"Our citizens are ready for change," he said Tuesday night.

The three propositions will create an internal auditor's office that reports to City Council rather than the city manager, empower the council to confirm the manager's appointment of a city attorney and reduce the number of employees covered by civil service protections.

Garza said two of the changes place more authority in the hands of elected officials, who are held accountable for their actions by voters.

The third gives the city manager and department heads greater ability to manage their employees.

With all precincts counted, the first two propositions won with more than 60 percent of the vote. The third proposition had 56 percent.

But low turnout for the charter's fifth revision since its adoption in 1951 disappointed both opponents and proponents.

Only 4.18 percent of Bexar County's 850,000 registered voters cast ballots, less than the 5.4 percent turnout for a tax relief election in 1997. Election officials said that was the lowest turnout in the county since the early 1990s.

Orell Fitzsimmons, state director of a local labor union that opposed the civil service changes in Proposition 3, said the turnout showed voters' "total disinterest" in the issues.

But Service Employees International Union local director Karen Bahow said organizers were encouraged that union demands persuaded city officials to examine the needs of employees with the lowest-paying jobs.

The mayor had been touting two of the proposed changes since his election in May and later added the third amendment, which eliminates civil service protection for doctors, lawyers and other licensed professionals.

Proposition 1 created a new internal auditor's office run by the mayor and the City Council rather than the city manager.

Under Proposition 2, the attorney still will be named by the city manager, but the council assumes the responsibility of confirming that appointment. The amendment gives the council the power, for the first time, to advise the manager on when to replace the city attorney.

Garza had fought steadfastly for the package of reforms, which were less splashy than other widely discussed changes that had been suggested but didn't end up on the ballot.

Several City Council members urged Garza to include term limits reform in the referendum and two voted in August against submitting the slate to voters because that issue wasn't on the ballot.

The biggest concern, critics said, was that term limits reform would be blocked for two years if any one of the amendments passed because the state prohibits the city from amending its charter more often than once every two years.

The mayor considered the changes a "slam dunk" victory earlier this year based on summer polls. But his confidence slipped recently when labor organizations and influential church-based activist groups came out against Proposition 3 for exempting some of the lowest-paid employees — temporary, seasonal and part-time workers — from civil service protections.

Officials included seasonal and part-time employees in the proposition to make the charter's language consistent with civil service rules, which have excluded those employees from coverage for decades, the city attorney said.

Garza consulted with the opposition and eventually persuaded Communities Organized for Public Service and the Metro Alliance to withdraw their opposition. Labor groups remained opposed. He agreed to give them and labor unions seats on a still-to-be formed working group that will advise council on changes that are needed for temporary and part-time employees.

Trish DeBerry, Garza's former campaign manager and a media relations consultant hired by a special committee formed to promote the charter changes, said the victory is a reflection of the mayor's popularity and his leadership style, which focuses on building consensus.

University of Texas at San Antonio public administration professor Heywood Sanders said the win shows the mayor can "sell these kinds of accountability and government changes to the public."

But Sanders cautioned against reading too much into the victory because of the dismal turnout.

Staff Writer Jaime Castillo contributed to this report.