The union that represents San Antonio firefighters claimed victory at the ballot box in November with the passage of two union-backed charter amendments, but it’s still fighting a legal battle from that election.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association sued the city last year in federal court alleging that city officials violated union representatives’ First Amendment rights while they gathered signatures for the amendments to appear on the November ballot — a charge the city denies.
San Antonio voters in November capped city managers’ tenure and pay and gave the firefighters union sole power to send contract negotiations into binding arbitration, measures sought by the union after firefighters have gone years without a contract.
Now, nine months after the vote, the city wants a federal judge to dismiss the union’s lawsuit.
The firefighters union’s complaint stems from a series of incidents in March 2018 in which its petitioners solicited signatures at city-owned libraries and senior centers and were told to confine their activities to designated “free speech” zones or leave the premises, the union said in its July 2018 lawsuit.
In at least two incidents, city staff called police when the union’s petitioners refused to comply with orders to move elsewhere, the union alleges.
Those “free speech” zones are small and located far from where petitioners could reasonably interact with residents, the union argues.
“At some point, that becomes a burden upon the petitioning activity, the free speech activity we seek to exercise,” the firefighters union’s lawyer George Vie told U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez on Monday.
But the city’s policy regulating free speech activity at its libraries has been in place since 2013, well before the firefighters’ union began its campaign, said William Christian, an attorney for the city.
Senior centers aren’t considered public forums for political activity, he said.
And the firefighters union successfully gathered enough signatures to place the proposed amendments on the November ballot — and got two of them passed, Christian said.
“Whatever restrictions that we put on them at the libraries and the senior centers, they had sufficient alternative channels of access to get the signatures they needed to put these measures on the ballot,” Christian said.
The union also alleges that city officials tried to intimidate the union’s representatives by posting a notice at libraries telling residents that unidentified petitioners were trying to gather signatures. The notice said citizens should be allowed to read a petition before agreeing to sign it, that they should not be pressured or intimidated into signing and should not be offered money in exchange for their signatures.
“If this had been posted and was always posted, that would be one thing,” Vie said. “This was an effort to intimidate individuals when the petition activity was going on.”
Christian argued that the information was correct and that the notice was protected government speech.
“The city is entitled to inform its citizens of their rights,” Christian said. “That’s not viewpoint discrimination in any shape or form.”
Rodriguez did not rule on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit Monday but will soon decide whether the suit will go to trial.
If Rodriguez allows the lawsuit to move forward, the union will continue to fight the city on two fronts.
Last month, the union triggered its right to send contract negotiations to binding arbitration after 19 meetings with city negotiators failed to bridge the large divide between the two sides’ proposals. A panel of three arbitrators will arrive at a deal that both sides must accept.
Getting an entire collective bargaining agreement through arbitration is unprecedented for a large Texas city, city officials have said. The firefighters union hasn’t had a contract since 2014 but most of the previous deal’s provisions are still in place.
The city dropped its own lawsuit against the firefighters union in November after voters approved the two ballot measures — and after the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s case.
The suit alleged the city’s contract with the firefighters union violated the state Constitution because of its “evergreen” clause, which keeps the previous contract’s provisions in place while the parties negotiate a new contract.
Joshua Fechter is a staff writer covering San Antonio city government and politics. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: @JFreports