District 2 candidate Dereck Hillyer is interviewed by local media.
Local media interview Dereck Hillyer, who is seeking an appointment to the City Council, last week. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Chris Steele, president of the San Antonio firefighters union, told Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other City officials late last year that union representatives would come to the bargaining table if the City of San Antonio dropped its unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the contract’s longstanding evergreen clause.

The lawsuit was dropped at the end of November, and shortly afterward, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, the target of the union’s long-running attack campaign, announced plans to retire in early 2019.

After nearly more than four years without progress, the table seemed set for negotiating a new contract to replace the one that expired in 2015. Since then, however, Steele has been largely invisible and, as is his custom, unresponsive to most media inquiries.

Instead, he seems to have hatched a new strategy of stalling talks until City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) decides whether to seek re-election to a second term in the May 4 city elections or roll the dice and challenge Nirenberg.

Steele identified Brockhouse as “our guy” for mayor in a surreptitiously tape-recorded talk made to firefighters last year.

In the meantime, political observers inside and outside of City Hall believe he’s added a new dimension to that plan by trying to gain control of the soon-to-be-vacant District 2 Council seat. First-term incumbent William “Cruz” Shaw is resigning Monday to accept a judicial appointment with Bexar County.

The decision on who will serve out his unexpired term rests with Nirenberg and City Council. Thirteen applicants filed for the seat by Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline. City Council will hear from the candidates at its Wednesday B Session, discuss a finalist or finalists in a subsequent executive session behind closed doors, then choose an interim replacement Thursday in open session.

The individual selected will hold the advantage of incumbency over other candidates who choose to seek a full two-year term in the May 4 city elections.

Even before the filing deadline was reached, however, an effort was underway to influence the process. Retiring firefighter Dereck Hillyer was presented by several Eastside community leaders as the people’s supposed candidate of choice at a Wednesday press conference, even before the application period ended and the community knew who is seeking the seat.

The depth of Hillyer’s support is highly questionable, as was the process in which some district residents supposedly expressed their preference for him via an informal email vote after attending one of two events with several would-be candidates. The events were organized by the Government Hill Alliance and some local faith-based leaders and were led by State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio).

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio).
State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) led a town hall meeting regarding the District 2 opening late last month at the Eastwood Community Baptist Church. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hillyer cited his record of community service working with Habitat for Humanity, San Antonio Fighting Back, and serving as president of the San Antonio Black Firefighters Association when I asked him Saturday about his qualifications for office.

In fact, he had not even retired as a firefighter last week before declaring his candidacy, although City employees are prohibited from seeking political office. He finally filed retirement papers, reportedly after not showing up for duty in recent weeks, on Thursday, the day after receiving his “community endorsement.” One City source said Hillyer’s absenteeism led to a notification to terminate late last year and that his retirement pre-empted that action.

A first look at Hillyer’s recent disciplinary and financial troubles as a firefighter includes a five-day suspension for absenteeism from the workplace and insubordination in 2015; reckless driving while on the job that has led to the City facing an expensive lawsuit in 2016; and failure over the last 18 months to repay the City of San Antonio more than $11,000 in worker’s compensation payments he collected at the same time he collected “Line of Duty payments” while recovering from an injury.

Click here to download a summary report, compiled by City staff and obtained by the Rivard Report on Friday, on Hillyer’s tenure at the fire department.

In short, Hillyer was inadvertently paid twice while recovering from the injury and has since refused to return the overpayments or even respond to communications from City attorneys. He was asked again to settle the debt when he filed his retirement papers last week, but he did not do so.

Hillyer told me Saturday that he is “making arrangements” to repay the money.

The document also notes that the City has been sued for a motor vehicle accident involving Hillyer while on duty on Feb. 26, 2016. The plaintiff, represented by attorney Thomas J. Henry, alleges that Hillyer “crossed a solid white line when exiting a ramp and pulling into a private parking lot, (making) an improper turn (and) colliding with plaintiff’s vehicle and causing serious bodily injury,” causing between $200,000 and $1 million in medical damages and and loss of personal property.

A trial date is set for July 22. According to the document, the City attorney’s office has repeatedly sought to contact Hillyer without success to gain his cooperation in preparing for the civil trial.

“Mr. Hillyer never responded,” it notes.

Hillyer said Saturday he was the victim in the vehicle accident. The police report states otherwise, faulting Hillyer for making a righthand turn from the center lane.

Council members will presumably question Hillyer about his  record at the Wednesday B session.

This is not exactly the picture of a citizen suited to serve in public office. His most important qualification, it seems, is that he and Steele served alongside one another as firefighters.

Citizens who attended the two recent events showcasing Hillyer didn’t learn any of these details about his poor record of service. The so-called community meetings were hardly representative, with only a few of the 13 candidates on hand and a failure on the part of Gervin-Hawkins to explore the candidates’ suitability to serve in elected office. Why would a member of the Texas Legislature, who has never served in an elected municipal office, take the lead in conducting the search for a City Council appointee?

For all their power, the police and firefighter unions have struggled in recent years to affect the outcome of City Council races. That’s a good thing. The historically underserved District 2 needs and deserves the strongest possible representation.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.