The tumultuous back-and-forth between the local fire union and the Parker administration was punctuated last month by the abrupt resignation of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Bryan Sky-Eagle, just 11 months into a three-year term.
Discord within the ranks over Sky-Eagle steering the union in some very unpopular directions -- like suing the union's umbrella group, the International Association of Fire Fighters, or negotiating a contract with the city that a whopping 93 percent of fire fighters flatly rejected -- had boiled over into violent threats. In a September 1 letter to his members, Sky-Eagle quit citing "venomous actions, mental and physical, taken against me by those who call themselves my 'brothers.'"
Sky-Eagle said he received "threats of, and calls for, violence against me, my wife and my children" via email and Facebook.
While the city's Office of Inspector General is investigating those threats, union members are trying to figure out something else about their former president's resignation: Why did Sky-Eagle erase all data on his union computer weeks before he quit?
Interim HPFFA president Alvin White says that the morning after Sky-Eagle sent his resignation letter, the union discovered the computer in the president's office had been wiped clean. White says the union eventually found receipts from August 11 and 16, showing Sky-Eagle had taken the computer to a Houston Altex store to erase its hard drive and return it to factory settings. (Sky-Eagle hasn't responded to requests for comment.)
So what was erased? "That's a good question. We don't know," White told the Press Thursday. "It just raised some flags for us."
So last month, the union filed an open records request with the city seeking all emails between Sky-Eagle and Mayor Annise Parker, City Attorney David Feldman, or Chief Policy Officer Janice Evans during Sky-Eagle's time with the union.
Part of the city's response was, well, a bit perplexing. The city appealed to the state Attorney General early this month, seeking to withhold those emails, claiming some might be covered by attorney-client privilege -- Feldman being the attorney, and Sky-Eagle being the "client" in that scenario -- and as such shouldn't be disclosed to a third party.
Reached by phone Thursday, Janice Evans (also the Parker's director of communications) said that such appeals are par for the course when someone requests emails from the city attorney's office.
Here's the problem with that, as the union's lawyer Richard Mumey argued in a letter to the AG this month: how in the world could conversations between the city attorney and a union president negotiating a contract on behalf of firefighters be construed as an attorney-client relationship?
As Mumey wrote:
"It would be highly improper for the City Attorney to be providing legal advice to the Union president, in that capacity. ... It is ridiculous to believe, as the City asserts, that any correspondence sent between the Mayor, the City Attorney, or the City's Chief Policy Officer and the firefighter union's president was 1) sent to him as Union president in order to provide legal advice to the City and 2) was not disclosed to a third party (the HPFFA), thus destroying any privilege that may have existed."
It should certainly come as no shock that the city would rather not turn this stuff over to the fire union. As Houston, like cities across the country, tries to rein in soaring pension costs, the fire fighters are the city's last major holdout. A decades-old state law essentially leaves Parker powerless to control the amount the city has to contribute to the firefighters' current pension fund -- Parker even sued the Houston Firefightes' Relief and Retirement Fund in January hoping to change that law.
Not long after the latest round of labor contract negotiations bombed in spectacular fashion this summer -- again, 93 percent of union members rejected the contract -- Parker openly floated a plan to set up a new separate, and less generous, plan for incoming firefighters. Parker explained that she tried broad reforms first. "But if I can't solve that one - Legislature won't help, I don't have the ability to negotiate - let's set up a separate pension and create one that is fair and sustainable for both sides," she told the Chron in August.
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There certainly could be another lawsuit on the horizon. The city, in its request to withhold the emails the HPFFA is now requesting, says the union leadership has threatened to sue if the city doesn't agree to arbitration.
Union members *The pension board shopped a new compromise last month -- no changes in current or future benefits, but firefighters would contribute a larger portion of their paychecks than in the past -- but Parker didn't budge.
Amid that backdrop, White now says the union is trying to rebuild after a year of failed contract negotiations and strife within its own ranks. "To do so, we must learn from what truly happened with Mr. Sky-Eagle and his undisclosed communications with the Parker Administration," he said.
Corrected Oct. 31, 2014 at 5 p.m.: To clarify, it was the pension board, not the HPFFA (which negotiates the city's labor contract), that floated a pension compromise that Mayor Parker rejected last month.