San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele answered questions about the relationship between the City and the union. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Five members of the San Antonio City Council have issued an open letter requesting that the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association enter negotiations with the City for a new contract and criticizing the union’s petition drive to amend the city charter.

In the letter, council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Manny Pelaez (D8), and John Courage (D9) state that they “believe your city charter petition drive is bad for the City, bad for taxpayers and bad for your own cause. … We’d rather you focus your energy on finding common ground, instead of gathering signatures on a disruptive petition for haphazard changes to the city charter.”

The letter was to be sent to union leadership on Saturday, said Victor Landa, a spokesman for Gonzales. Chris Steele, president of the firefighters union, responded to news of the letter Friday by repeating earlier statements that before any negotiations begin, the City must drop its lawsuit challenging the so-called “evergreen clause” in the union’s collective bargaining agreement, which expired in 2014.

“Those 5 so-called City Council members should show leadership by dropping the lawsuit and [stop] the waste of millions of dollars of [taxpayers’] money,” Steele stated in an email to the Rivard Report.

The firefighters have been operating under the contract’s evergreen clause, which keeps in place the provisions of the old labor deal, but without regular pay increases. The City sued over the clause in November 2014, losing twice in lower courts, but has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The union has circulated three petitions seeking changes to the city charter. One calls for capping any future city manager’s tenure to eight years and limiting the city manager’s salary to 10 times that of the lowest-paid city employee. Another petition would give the union unilateral authority to force the City to enter binding arbitration should other avenues to negotiate contracts fail. The final petition would change requirements for citizen-led referendums, giving voters a say in passing specific City ordinances such as increases in public utility rates.

In the letter, council members argue that the referendum petition “calls for disruptive and expensive special elections on single issues by handing power to a small minority of voters,” thus taking away power from the individuals that elected the council members.

The letter echoes recent calls by Mayor Ron Nirenberg for the firefighters union to sit down at the bargaining table and hammer out a new contract.

“It’s time for you to come to the negotiating table” for “a well-deserved raise,” the council members’ letter states.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.