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Judge refuses to block firefighting agreement, sets hearing date

Thursday, October 23, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A state district judge on Wednesday declined to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the Austin City Council from acting on an inter-local agreement with the Westlake Fire Department during today’s Council meeting. However, the Austin Firefighters Association will be allowed to make its case against that agreement next month when Judge John Dietz holds a hearing to consider a temporary injunction against the city.


The lawyer for the firefighters argued in court that the agreement to allow Westlake Fire Department crews to cover territory that will be annexed into the City of Austin was an improper out-sourcing of jobs that should be covered by civil-service protections. “It’s not simply an interlocal agreement where we help each other out,” attorney Craig Deats told In Fact Daily. “Now, it’s become where we’re contracting with you…you provide our fire protection service. We’re not going to do it, you do it.” The Westlake Fire Department currently serves the area in question, known as “The Peninsula.”


Deats cited a 1991 case heard before the Texas Supreme Court, Lee v. City of Houston, in which he said the court ruled against allowing the Houston Fire Department to replace firefighters transferred out of a “fire prevention” unit with civilians. He argued that should be interpreted to prevent the City of Austin from allowing firefighters in non-civil service departments such as Westlake to serve as the primary responders for territory added to the city limits through annexation.


“The whole purpose of the civil service act was to allow cities to have qualified personnel with permanent tenure who are above political influence…the use of an inter-local agreement in this manner will give the central city a civil service fire department, which will be surrounded by a hodge-podge of non civil service departments and volunteers,” Deats said.


Attorneys for the city argued that the contract up for consideration today is simply an extension of an existing agreement, and that Austin and other cities around the state have used similar agreements extensively. Assistant City Attorney Dana Johnson also argued that the court did not need to issue a temporary restraining order, since the contract covers areas that are not set to be annexed into the city until January 1, 2009. “Whether or not the agreement is illegal, it does not establish imminent harm,” she said.


The judge agreed with that contention and did not issue a TRO. Instead, both sides will return to the courthouse on Nov. 4 to present their arguments for a temporary injunction.

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