In an impassioned speech Monday in council chambers, Palestine Mayor Steve Presley called on Union Pacific officials to apologize and drop their lawsuit against the city.
“It offends me that an extremely profitable, multi-billion-dollar company wants to do away with a long-standing legal contract, just to increase profits,” he said. “Shame on you, Union Pacific. Drop this lawsuit and apologize.”
Despite his anger, Presley told council members the city – before it takes legal action against Union Pacific – needs to review current law and court rulings to determine “if we have any strong basis to win.” If possible, Presley said, the city should fight.
During closed session Monday, council members voted to give City Manager Leslie Cloer the authority to ask the Texas Municipal League for assistance and advice on how to react to Union Pacific.
Union Pacific filed a lawsuit against the city the day before Thanksgiving to abrogate its 150-year-old contract with the city of Palestine.
The contract, originally a handshake-deal between leaders of a 23-year-old city and a burgeoning railroad, guaranteed a railroad presence in the city, as well as jobs for local workers.
The agreement was updated in 1954, Presley said. Today, the contract calls for the railroad to employ at least 65 Palestine workers – or 0.52 percent of UP's national workforce.
“Three times in the past century the railroad has tried to terminate the contract,” Presley said. “The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts refused to let them out.”
Even so, the legal dynamics have changed, as Presley has acknowledged. Fifty years ago, the city, in confronting Union Pacific Railroad, faced the Interstate Commerce Commission. Today, Palestine faces the far more powerful federal Surface Transportation Board.
The STB has given railroads far more latitude to terminate contracts for economic reasons, especially over the last decade. Today, it's far tougher for municipalities to fight the railroad, as several cities that have lost cases have learned.
Presley blasted the Surface Transportation Board for allowing UP to void contracts with cities nationwide.
Presley said Tuesday the speech, scribbled on a piece of paper, took only a few minutes to compose, as it addressed topics he holds dear: Palestine's history and the welfare of its residents.
“It's such an important thing – this case,” he said. “No company, particularly those large and rich, should be able to get out of contracts whenever they want.”
Asked Tuesday what impact his words would have on UP, Presley said: “I hope they'll take heed. I hope they become the good partners they can be.”
Contacted Tuesday, Union Pacific Spokesperson Raquel Espinoza told the Herald-Press she needed time to consider the speech before responding.