Firefighters Union Stalls on Talks, Seeks to Win District 2 Council Seat

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District 2 candidate Dereck Hillyer is interviewed by local media.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Local media interview Dereck Hillyer, who is seeking an appointment to the City Council, last week.

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).

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

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.

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.

10 thoughts on “Firefighters Union Stalls on Talks, Seeks to Win District 2 Council Seat

  1. Chris Steele continues to try to bully his way to power. Thank you for printing the truth about this candidate and Steele’s continued machinations.

  2. I find it very interesting that the attitude from that district is that it must be represented by someone who is black. If you’re as focused on race as Shaw was, you cannot properly represent the entire district. I was so glad that I left D2.

  3. This is what they have been doing for years in this district…getting people elected that they can use like a puppet. No real progress is made when this kind of corruption is involved! Keep calling them out so the people can see!

  4. Thank you so much, Mr. Rivard, for bringing the truth to those of us who care about the future of San Antonio. From my perspective, Mr. Hillyer’s vocal support of the three recent charter amendments is an automatic disqualifyer to serve any role in leading our city. The Mayor and city council members should know that we’ll be watching them closely when it comes to who they choose for this appointment.

    I hope too that Greg Brockhouse decides to run for Mayor. It’ll be good to know that once he gets whipped by Mayor Nirenberg, we’ll finally be able to say we’ve heard the last of him and Chris Steele.

  5. This reminds me of under developed countries politics… unfortunately it is happening in San Antonio’s most underserved communities and districts… It also is happening in other lower socioeconomics districts of San Antonio…

    • The east side is the laughing stock of the entire city and always has been. It’s controlled by a handful of people that have too much time on their hands (that’s code for no job), have some fictitious ax to grind, are clueless about meaningful progress and in my opinion full of hate. They don’t represent the neighborhood at all which brings up the other embarrassing fact about the east side. The majority of people that don’t agree with the citizens of Crazyville don’t do anything about it. So until a rational alternate group of people join together an get rid of this scourge then the east side will just be the east side.

  6. The pressing common issues in District 2 are streets, sidewalks, animal control and code compliance. The community needs to visibly see progress of actual change after years of neglect. The representative needs to work with city staff to assure this progress. The representative needs to attend community meetings to receive the guidance of the people that live, work, worship, play, shop, dine, conduct business and attend school in their district. The district office should not be a stepping stone to higher office but rather a duty to serve the constituents who elected the representative. The opportunity is there for the Eastside to be the next area of development much like Brooks City Base.

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