San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele responds to reporters questions.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio on Thursday formally dropped its lawsuit challenging an evergreen clause in the firefighters union contract, according to City documents. The union has cited the lawsuit as its reason for refusing to negotiate with the City on a new labor agreement.

“By dropping the lawsuit, the City is demonstrating its intent to take a positive step that will hopefully result in productive discussions and mutually agreed upon terms for a new [collective bargaining agreement] as soon as possible,” City Attorney Andy Segovia wrote in a letter to union attorney Ricky Poole.

Segovia asked the firefighters union for a list of dates and times over the coming weeks to arrange negotiations “with the help of a mediator.” The City suggested that former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, who served as mediator for the court-ordered sessions that broke down last year, assume that role again. The firefighters’ contract expired in 2014 and firefighters have continued to work under its terms due to the evergreen clause.

“Firefighters union leaders have made it clear that they viewed the city’s lawsuit as the last remaining obstacle before negotiations could begin,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement. “We have now removed the obstacle and look forward to putting our conflict behind us and getting a new agreement that is fair to firefighters and taxpayers.”

The move came hours after City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced she was retiring from the job she has held for 13 years.

On the heels of its election victory on Nov. 6, when voters approved the union’s charter amendment that grants them the power to unilaterally call for an impasse in contract negotiations, the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association representatives said it would drop its countersuit and return to the table only after the City’s case was completely dropped.

“If they drop the lawsuit we will be at the table within seven days,” union President Chris Steele said in March, adding that he would agree to meet the day after the City drops it. In June, the Texas Supreme Court chose not to hear an appeal from the City that could have overturned a lower court’s rejection of the City’s request for summary judgment.

Steele did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, and a union spokesman declined to comment.

“Yes, the City made the right move,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) who worked for the police and fire union prior to becoming a Council member and will likely run for mayor. “We should get back to negotiating and finalizing this once and for all. It [should] have never come to this, but we have a chance to make it right.”

The fire union, however, might not want to go back into mediation, Brockhouse added, the two sides should just “get back to the negotiation table.”

The lawsuit, filed nearly two months after the union’s contract expired, challenges the constitutionality of the union contract’s 10-year evergreen clause that keeps the terms of the expired contract in place for 10 years or until a new agreement is reached. The police union agreed to a new contract with the City in 2016 after embittered negotiations that included an eight-year evergreen clause. The City dropped its separate lawsuit against the police union’s clause when a deal was reached.

Also approved by voters earlier this month, with a solid margin, was a measure that capped the compensation and tenure of future city managers, a proposition widely viewed to be aimed at Sculley, although she was not subject to its provisions. The firefighters union spearheaded the petition drive to place the propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...