Bexar County Judge Cathleen Stryker on Wednesday denied a request for a temporary restraining order that could have prevented the firefighters union’s three proposed charter amendments from getting onto the November ballot.
Because the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association gathered the requisite signatures, City Council is required to place the measures on the ballot and is expected to do so Thursday. But Stryker could still toss the proposals out if she rules against the fire union on the overarching lawsuit that challenges how the firefighters union paid for the corresponding petitions.
“Today the Judge simply ruled to deny the [temporary restraining order],” said City Attorney Andy Segovia in an email. “The lawsuit filed by [SSAF] is still active and the case has not been decided on the merits. We will monitor the ongoing litigation and determine what, if any, action we need to take. In the meantime, we anticipate the Council will act tomorrow to place the petitions on the ballot.”
Stryker could still issue an injunction on the ballot items at a later time, Christian Archer, campaign manager for the political action committee Secure San Antonio’s Future that filed the lawsuit, told the Rivard Report Wednesday afternoon. “She got an earful today … rather than make a ruling that could later get overturned, I think she just decided to give it more thought.
“I think we’ll have a ruling on the injunction and probably a day in court.”
Attorney Mikal Watts, representing Secure San Antonio’s Future, argued during a hearing Wednesday morning that the firefighters union illegally used member dues to pay a petition consultant to collect more than 100,000 signatures.
Those signatures were verified by the City Clerk’s office in May, but a San Antonio Express-News investigation in July revealed the union failed to disclose and properly categorize a $510,000 payment to Buda-based petition consultant Texas Petition Strategies.
Watts said the fire union not only failed to properly disclose the payments, it also violated the Texas Election Code’s laws concerning political contributions and expenditures when it took dues from its entire membership, some of which may not agree with the petitions. Instead, Watts said, the union should have formed a separate PAC and collected money from members who support the petitions.
The ballot proposals would make it easier to change ordinances, utility rates, and other rules typically left to City Council; limit the tenure and salary of future city managers; and force binding arbitration on a new labor agreement between the City and fire union. Secure San Antonio’s Future plans to raise more than $1 million and launch an aggressive campaign against the measures that City and business leaders have called “dangerous” to the City’s operations and financial health.
Cris Feldman, the Houston-based attorney representing the fire union in this case, acknowledged that union dues were used to pay Texas Petition Strategies, which collected a vast majority of signatures. But that’s not illegal, he said, because firefighters are not required to be union members.
“The paperwork error was rectified,” Feldman told Stryker regarding the lack of disclosure and the erroneous filing afterward stating Texas Petition Strategies’ work was an in-kind donation. “It was a mistake, [but the] law allows for correcting mistakes.”
The general purpose PAC the fire union used to pay the consultant, Feldman said, has the authority to make direct expenditures to such initiatives.
“It’s been well known for decades that corporations and unions can contribute to ballot measures but not directly to candidates,” Feldman said.
The union has since formed a specific action PAC so it can collaborate with other groups that support the three proposed charter amendments, Feldman said. That way “the union doesn’t have to bear the cost,” he explained.
Watts said this new PAC is a sign that the union knows what it did was wrong. He asked Stryker to have the union “start over” and “do another election [and] get it right the next time.”
It’s unclear if the restraining order would have fully prevented the proposed charter changes from getting on the ballot entirely. City Council has until Monday, Aug. 20, to call the election, but a Bexar County judge could add ballot items after that, according to City sources.
“These are three terrible propositions for the future of this city,” Archer told reporters before the ruling was sent out. “[Local philanthropist and businessman] Gordon Hartman and I, we’re prepared to run the campaign to defeat these measures at the ballot box if necessary. But what is clear is that [the fire union] violated the law, and they tried to hide the money and they got caught. It’s as simple as that.”
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While most of the more than hour-long hearing Wednesday morning involved Watts and Feldman arguing case law and term definitions, Archer said he hopes Stryker will “be able to see through a lot of arcane campaign laws and agree with us.”
After Stryker’s ruling was sent out Wednesday afternoon, Feldman said he was pleased.
“It is now time for City Council to place the charter amendments on the November ballot,” he said.
“I understand why [SSAF] filed the lawsuit, but all along I have been focused on telling the public how bad these proposed charter amendments will be for the city,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in an email. “I will continue to make sure voters understand the effects of these destructive amendments. All three fire union initiatives are bad policy.”
“The City Council has a ministerial obligation to place these proposals on the ballot. I expect that we will do so tomorrow.”
Click here to download a copy of the judge’s ruling.