Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council approved a five-year contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) by a 9-2 vote Thursday morning, concluding a contentious, sometimes bitter collective bargaining process that lasted more than two years.
Councilmen Rey Saldaña (D4) and Ron Nirenberg (D8) cast the two “no” votes, citing language in the contract that they said lets bad cops off the hook for prior offenses. Nirenberg’s dissent, however, was largely focused on other financial aspects of the deal.
The majority of Council members said that while the contract isn’t perfect, it does allow the City to better manage its budget by reining in, to some degree, ballooning healthcare costs. They backed Mayor Ivy Taylor, who said eleventh-hour efforts to add police disciplinary issues to the negotiating process would cause the union to disown a contract members had just approved by a 70% majority.
“When I had envisioned getting to this time, I thought that I would feel celebratory,” Taylor said after the vote. “However, I can’t say that that characterizes how I feel right now. I really have mixed emotions.”
Lengthy public hearings in Council chambers on Wednesday night and Thursday morning were emotional and, at times, heated. About 40 people called for Council to reject the contract Wednesday night, echoing Saldaña’s concerns about a contract that allows the disciplinary records of officers to be altered after two, in some cases 10, years to display lesser infractions.
In a phone interview with the Rivard Report after the vote, Saldaña said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the outcome.
“It just seems so hypocritical,” he said, “(Council members) say they’re not passing the buck (financially) and then turn around and pass a contract that they know doesn’t allow us to hold officers accountable.”
(Read More: Saldaña: New Contract Puts Union Before Public)
Of the 13 people who spoke today, most were in favor of ending the costly negotiation.
“The concerns and comments that we have heard from citizens certainly are valid and sobering,” Taylor said. “Those are issues that we have to deal with as a community. But I am very proud and happy with the fact that we are turning a corner as a community in relation to this specific issue that has loomed large over our city for three years.”
(Read More: Mayor Taylor: New Contract Moves City Forward)
She spoke during a press conference alongside her Council colleagues. Saldaña, Nirenberg, and Roberto Treviño were notably absent.
“I just needed to come to my office and decompress alone,” he said.
Treviño was undecided on how we would vote until Thursday morning.
Taylor is in the process of setting up a stakeholder committee on police-community relations to address concerns over police accountability and disciplinary procedures among other issues. She named several citizens that will be on the committee, including members of the police union, community leaders, and activists.
“I think it’s important that we have a great working relationship with our community,” SAPOA President Mike Helle told reporters after the vote. “We always have room for improvement and certainly we stand for that – we always strive for excellence. … We want to have a relationship with our community (in which) we’re not telling our children that they need to be afraid of the police officer. (Instead) the policeman needs to be someone that you can go to if you ever need help.”
Taylor said the City will host a forum on diversity, policing, and public safety this Saturday. The discussion will take place at the Carver Community Cultural Center at 10 a.m. The first meeting of the police-community relations committee will be scheduled for late September.
Saldaña acknowledged that progress was made today in the way of fairly compensating police officers with wage increases and healthcare benefits, but said “setting up a committee and talking about what we need to do in the way of police reform is easy. Actually implementing it is hard.”
Mike Lowe, a local Black Lives Matter activist and SATX4 organizer who helped rally dozens of citizens to speak out against the contract in the weeks leading up to the vote, was named by Taylor as a member of the committee. (See a full list of people who have agreed to serve on the committee at the end of this article.)
“I respect the mayor, the platform that she has, and the invitation to dialogue or at least a seat at the table,” Lowe told the Rivard Report after the vote. “You have to sit at the table in order to voice a concern.”
But he accepted a spot on the committee “very, very reluctantly,” he said. “In the end, it’s just conversation. It’s not going to really be actionable unless we change the patterns of the police accountability by changing the contract.
“I don’t want any type of reform, I want a revolution,” added Lowe, who has suggested defunding the police department until that revolution occurs. “We’ll continue to push that and be unapologetic.”
Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) delivered an emotional speech before the vote, during which he called upon Police Chief William McManus to answer questions about his ability to punish and fire bad cops.
“Do you think these terms let police officers operate ‘above the law?'” asked Warrick, whose Eastside district includes the largest concentration of black citizens.
“Absolutely not,” McManus said.
Since 2005, 70 police officers have been fired, according to City staff, and 22 have since been allowed to come back through arbitration or other procedural allowance. Of those 70, 13 other cases are pending.
“That doesn’t sound like a blank check or no accountability to me,” Warrick said.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley clarified the rules surrounding the chief and arbitrator’s ability to look at an officer’s record to either decide punishment or make a decision on appeal, respectively.
“The chief can see everything in someone’s file, but he is limited in what he can use in his discipline of the officer,” Sculley said. “Likewise for the arbitrator.”
Warrick then read aloud the names of 99 people who have “died this year from violence in our community.” It took several minutes.
“We’re not voting on our society and its inherently racist institutions,” he said. “We’re voting on a contract to move our city forward.”
After illustrating his point that a police force is needed to “clean up the mess that society makes,” and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., members of the audience yelled out in response.
“Don’t betray us,” someone said.
“It’s not betrayal,” he said. “I can’t betray myself. I’m always going to be a black man whether I’m a councilman or not.” By the time he finished, he was wiping tears from his face.
The City’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the previous contract’s 10-year evergreen clause is now dropped, Sculley said after the vote, but the lawsuit challenging the legality of the same clause in the firefighter union’s contract continues. The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association has yet to begin contract negotiations with the City despite repeated attempts by leadership.
The previous police and firefighters contracts expired in September 2014, triggering 10-year evergreen clauses that keep the contract terms in place until new ones are ratified. The new police contract includes 14% in wage increases, a 3% signing bonus, a healthcare option that would have officer dependents pay premiums for the first time, and an increase in clothing allowance. The new contract reduces the evergreen contract to eight years and includes an exception that premiums paid by officers and dependents will escalate 10% each year the contract is in evergreen.
The City had set out in its negotiations with the goal to reduce City spending on health care, which the new contract does. City officials say taxpayers will save $85 million in healthcare costs over the life of the five-year deal.
Another key goal was to keep public safety spending under 66% of the General Fund. After three years, the proposed contract is expected to increase public safety spending slightly beyond 66% to 66.3% and 67.6% in years four and five, respectively. Robust growth in utility and tax collections in San Antonio and, thus, the City’s budget could push the number back under the 66% ceiling. Sculley said the percentage gap to 66% could be brought down by giving the fire union a different deal.
Nirenberg cited this precarious budget future, the continued zero-premium healthcare plans for members, and the “mere” two year reduction of the evergreen clause as cause to reject the contract.
“Mayor, in bringing us this deal, you have ignored the goals we established for the health of this city – from fiscal responsibility to procedural police reform,” Nirenberg said. “This deal plays politics instead of protecting San Antonio’s long term future.”
That the cost of public safety depends on a good deal with the fire union, was another concern of his.
“Expecting the fire union to cut the legal fund while also agreeing to a lesser contract overall to address the shortfall caused by the police union settlement (is) robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
But the City’s stance has been “first in, best contract,” Sculley said.
The new police contract eliminates a $1.5 million legal fund used by officers to cover personal legal expenses only if the fire union agrees to the same stipulation.
“I think – I hope – (the fire union) will be motivated to negotiate and come to the table. We’ve asked them to negotiate eight times over the past two and a half years,” Sculley said. “They have refused to date.”
The City’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which will come before the same City Council for approval on Sept. 15, is based on the terms of the now-approved contract and the fire union’s continued operation in evergreen.
City staff estimates that the evergreen fire union contract will cost the City an additional $6 million in 2017.
Members of the Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations so far:
· Oliver Hill, NAACP
· Mike Lowe, SATX4
· Walter Perry, Community Leader
· Cassandra Littlejohn, Community Leader
· Rev. Eli Bonilla, Abundant Life Church
· Rev. Jerry Dailey, Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church
· Rev. Paul Stevens, Baptist Ministers Union
· Tommy Adkisson, Former Bexar County Commissioner
· Denise Barkhurst, Big Brothers Big Sisters
· Darrell Boyce, San Antonio Fighting Back
· Robert Salcido, Pride Center
· Analco Gonzalez, OCI Group
· Dr. Carey Latimore of Trinity University
· Taj Matthews, Claude and Zernona Black Leadership Foundation
· Brian Dillard, Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Assoc.
· Natalie Garza, District Director for State Representative Ina Minjarez
· Michael Hu, Community Leader
· Sean Green, My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio
· Ramon Juan Vasquez, American Indians in TX
· Nehemiah O Neal, Community Leader
· Munirah Small, Mothers of Black Boys
· Beverly Watts-Davis, Community Leader
· Johnathan Delmer, Oak Park – Northwood Neighborhood Association
· Dr. Michael Gilbert, UTSA, Dept. of Criminal Justice
· C LeRoy Cavazos, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
· Willie Ng, Office of District Attorney Nico LaHood
· SAPOA representatives
This story will be updated with more details from Thursday’s meeting throughout the afternoon.
Top image: San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle shakes hands with a San Antonio Police officer after City Council approved the union’s contract with the City. Photo by Scott Ball.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive.