Less than one month after the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association won its legal battle against the City of San Antonio regarding its contract, the union filed its own suit Thursday alleging the City violated petition gatherers’ First Amendment rights earlier this year.

The lawsuit says that while seeking signatures in designated “free speech areas” for the firefighter union’s San Antonio First ballot initiatives, petitioners were threatened with arrest at the Julia Yates Semmes Library and other locations.

Union President Chris Steele stood near that zone Thursday during a press conference to announce the lawsuit. He chose that location to demonstrate how it could be challenging for anyone trying to gather signatures to do so as the zone at the Semmes library is 288 feet from the entrance, he said.

“So tell me, Mr. Mayor [Ron Nirenberg], how do you distribute literature or give someone the chance to sign a petition when you cannot be any closer to them than a football field?” Steele said. “This is literally almost a football field, 288 feet. That’s where we’re standing at today. This is where we were told if we came any closer, we would be arrested.”

Despite the incident Steele referred to, petition gatherers were able to collect enough signatures at various sites to put three amendments to the City’s charter to a public vote. City Council is expected to officially add the amendments to the Nov. 6 ballot before its Aug. 20.

One amendment would limit future city managers’ salaries to no more than 10 times the pay of the lowest-paid, full-time City employee. Another would give the firefighters union sole discretion to decide when contract negotiations with the City are not progressing and require the City to go to binding arbitration. A third amendment would decrease the required number of signatures for a referendum and extend the amount of time groups or individuals would have to gather those signatures.

Jeff Coyle, public affairs director for the City, attended the press conference that he called a “publicity stunt.” Coyle said the City had not been given notice of the press conference and he didn’t know what the event or lawsuit was about until he arrived and was handed a copy.

“There is great irony in the fact that a union that has blasted a lawsuit for years now is turning around and filing a lawsuit over an issue that the courts have decided many, many times over in our favor,” Coyle said.

The City lost its court battle in June challenging the constitutionality of the “evergreen”clause in the union’s contract that keeps the agreement in place for 10 years or until a new agreement is reached. Union officials and supporters frequently criticized the City for suing its own first responders.

Coyle said he could not say for sure if any of the petition gatherers at the library were threatened with arrest earlier this year as the suit alleges, but he said if law enforcement determined someone was breaking that law, offenders could be arrested.

Free speech zones were created to protect First Amendment rights, he added.

The lawsuit claims the City impeded the union’s petition drive when library staffers instructed signature gatherers to use the free speech zones “removed from view and contact with citizens.” The lawsuit also references several instances in which the police were called by library staff or staff at the Northeast Senior Center to respond to signature gatherers who were not using the free speech zones.

Officials created the zones at libraries because they are commonly used as polling places during elections. Steele said if candidates such as the mayor are allowed go to libraries on election days and be within 100 feet of the entrance, then signatures gatherers and other citizens exercising their free speech rights ought to be able to be closer as well.

“It’s a basic First Amendment issue.” said Chris Feldman, a Houston-based attorney who is representing the fire union in this case. “The City of San Antonio has unfairly targeted the firefighters and their civic activities. This suit is brought not just for the firefighters but [on] behalf, in essence, of every citizen in San Antonio that wishes to engage in the full range of activities allowed under the First Amendment.”

Coyle said he thinks the union is suing the City to distract from its struggles in accounting for how it paid Texas Petition Strategies for its help in the petition campaign earlier this year.

This week the firefighters union’s Political Action Committee (PAC) amended three campaign finance reports that it previously filed. The PAC made the changes because it failed to disclose that it spent more than $500,000 on bills from Texas Petition Strategies. The PAC also failed to report between $500 and $999 in expenditures on a Facebook ads seen by 100,000 to 200,000 voting-aged users, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

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State law requires PACs to file disclosures accounting for contributions and expenditures.

“What I think this about today is an effort to distract from the union’s own negative publicity,” Coyle said. “It’s been reported for several days now that the fire union has not been appropriately disclosing or reporting its political activity, and even when doing so late, it has been incorrect.”

Feldman said that he expects the City will file a response to the lawsuit and depositions will likely follow. He estimated the lawsuit could be decided within a year if there are no significant delays. Feldman does not represent the union in its negotiations with the City and he was unsure how the new lawsuit might impact efforts to get both sides talking again.

Kyle Ringo

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.