San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Texas Supreme Court will not take on the City of San Antonio’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that upheld the firefighters union contract’s 10-year evergreen clause, according to a list of court orders published Friday on the court’s website.

The City argued in its original 2014 lawsuit that the clause, which keeps most of the terms of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s expired contract with the City in place for 10 years or until a new agreement is reached, is unconstitutional because it binds the City to unsustainable spending practices. But the Fourth Court of Appeals and a district court ruled in favor of the fire union.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is total vindication for our position which two courts have already ruled in our favor,” reads a statement from the fire union, which goes on to characterize City Manager Sheryl Sculley as a power-hungry “unelected out of town bureaucrat.” Click here to download the statement.

“We will evaluate our position and discuss our next steps with the Membership. … It isn’t over yet; we have much more work to do.”

The City’s current collective bargaining agreement with the union expired Sept. 30, 2014, and it filed lawsuits against the police and firefighters contracts’ evergreen clauses nearly two months later. The police union agreed to a new contract with the City in 2016 after embittered negotiations that included an eight-year evergreen clause.

The fire union has refused to negotiate while the City pursued its appeals. It’s unclear if the high court’s decision means fire union officials will come to the negotiating table.

“We aren’t going to waste time looking back,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg stated in a news release. “Union leaders have said the lawsuit was the roadblock to negotiations. Now that it is over, they should come to the table. The public deserves good faith negotiations. We must remember that we are at this point due to the shortsighted decisions of the past. I’m committed to making sure that the City’s future contracts with police officers and firefighters are fair to all involved, are legal and done right.

“[Fire union President] Chris Steele has my phone number,” Nirenberg added in a separate email to the Rivard Report. “Steele said he would come to the table the day after the lawsuit was gone. I’m available tomorrow.”

Steele could not be reached immediately for comment.  At a press conference in March, he said he would negotiate if “they drop the lawsuit,” which the City did not do. Rather, the Supreme Court dropped it.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a longtime critic of Nirenberg who worked for the police and fire unions as a consultant before he was elected to Council in 2017, said it’s unlikely Steele will come to the table any time soon.

“I don’t really think [the union’s response is] going to be, ‘Let’s go back to the table and everything is hunky-dory and nothing happened,” said Brockhouse, who has said he plans to run for mayor at some point. “But the union wants to be at the table because that’s where’s the deal’s at.”

The State Supreme Court’s decision, he said, is “vindication” for the fire union and that he has “been saying for years that you shouldn’t be suing family and the [City’s flawed lawsuit is] total waste of time and energy.”

City officials were confident that the high court would agree to hear the case, especially when the court asked for briefs in December 2017.

The City has spent more than $1 million arguing these lawsuits and appeals, Brockhouse said. “Now I turn the finger and say to Sheryl Sculley and Ron Nirenberg, ‘What are you going to do now?’” he added. 

The lawsuit against the police union, City officials argue, resulted in a more sustainable contract and cost avoidance that far outweighs the legal bills. After a task force formed under former Mayor Julián Castro and Sculley found that the City’s healthcare costs for uniformed employees would outpace revenue, the then-City Council agreed to have negotiators try to rein in costs in future contracts. The City will save an estimated $87.5 million in healthcare costs for police officers over five years, according to officials.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court will not hear the case, but we believe the legal challenge was a necessary result of the union’s unwillingness to negotiate for more than four years,” Sculley stated in the City’s release. “The union has used the 10-year evergreen clause to avoid having the conversation about whether their benefits are sustainable and affordable to taxpayers. Now that the legal challenge is over, there is no reason for the union not to come to the table. We remain ready and willing to negotiate.”

Meanwhile, the City and fire union continue to fight another war being waged in the hearts and minds of voters as three petitions crafted by the union make their way to the November ballot.

Voters will decide if the City’s charter should include language that limits future city managers’ salaries and tenure, forces binding arbitration between the union and the City for a new contract, and makes it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances and financial decisions to a public vote.

The union’s “San Antonio First” campaign says the petitions aim to giving citizens a stronger voice. But that voice, City officials have said, would be overtaken by special interest groups that want to leverage the threat of easier ballot initiatives to control local legislation.

It’s gearing up to be at least a million-dollar fight as Secure San Antonio’s Future – a political action committee supported by Nirenberg, several Council members, and business leaders – launches its aggressive fundraising efforts and anti-charter change campaign, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

“It is the duty I take very seriously as a member of this council, but also as mayor of this city, to not remain agnostic when people attempt to hurt this city – which is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the motivation behind [these] petitions,” Nirenberg said when the petitions were verified in May.

“We do hope the citizens of this city take notice of what’s happening here to make sure they have a say in the future – a positive future – for the city.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org