Judge Rules Against City in Lawsuit, City to Appeal

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SAPOA President Mike Helle. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

State District Judge Martha Tanner ruled late Monday to deny the City of San Antonio’s motions for summary judgment in its lawsuits against the local police and fire unions.

Within the last month, Tanner has heard the City’s case against the 10-year evergreen clause in its collective bargaining agreements with the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA). Tanner also heard arguments from attorneys representing the two unions.

“This is total vindication for police officers and their families,” stated a post on SAPOA’s Facebook page celebrating the ruling.

Following Monday’s ruling, City Manager Sheryl Sculley wrote Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council a brief memo, saying that while the City disagreed with Tanner’s ruling, it was not a surprise.

“It was expected that whichever side lost at the district court level would appeal to a higher court,” Sculley noted in the memo.

“The City’s legal team has always felt that our chances get better the higher we go in the court system, given the strength of our position and the significance of the constitutional issue at stake,” Sculley added. Sculley also said the City has spent less than $200,000 on the lawsuits to date.

Much of the City’s argument against the clause in the unions’ collective bargaining agreements is that the unusually long evergreen clause prolongs existing salary and benefit terms and could result in a planned debt for the City. Taylor issued a statement, saying negotiations are the better way to go for all sides.

“We’d rather be negotiating than litigating, but since the unions have backed away from the bargaining table, the courthouse is our only recourse right now,” the mayor said. “The police and fire contracts cost taxpayers more than a half billion dollars annually so we must resolve this issue to ensure that the City’s public safety contracts are affordable to taxpayers.”

The unions’ attorneys say the evergreen clause is not resulting in a debt, and that the City’s legal challenge could pose a risk to the practice of collective bargaining in Texas. Mike Helle, the police union resident, stated in his own press release that the judge’s ruling represents vindication for police officers and their families. He also stated in the release that the city manager “tried to bully us with lawsuits and legal threats.” The police union will study the ruling, Helle wrote, and determine its next course of action.

“The mayor and City Council must examine Sheryl Sculley’s legal strategy and the cost to taxpayers that will only escalate as the City refuses to accept Judge Tanner’s ruling and appeals to try to find anyone who will agree with their frivolous lawsuit,” Helle stated. “It’s clear now the lawsuit must be dropped for both sides to get back to negotiating in good faith.”

Police union and City officials haven’t met for collective bargaining negotiations since September, when talks broke down after teams seemed close to reaching an agreement. While health care benefits and pay increases were settled, police union officials said they would not make a deal that included a shorter evergreen clause or with a lawsuit looming over the process.

City Attorney Mike Bernard has noted that the suit could go to trial once the City appeals in the event of Judge Tanner rendering a decision favorable to the unions.

The reaction from City Council has been mixed, however. Alan Warrick (D2), Cris Medina (D7) and Joe Krier (D10) were the only Council members to issue press releases by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Warrick suggested the City could drop its lawsuit “against our brothers and sisters in uniform and get back to negotiating in good faith. Judge Tanner heard arguments from both sides and determined that the current police and fire contracts are valid and constitutional.”

Warrick said he is unconvinced there’s any reason the City should continue pursuing litigation as a way to decide the controversial issue, and that because collective bargaining has been determined as sound public policy authorized by state law, he is confident both sides are capable of reaching an agreement now.

Councilmember Medina (D7) agreed with Warrick to an extent in his own press statement, saying the City should step back and re-evaluate its legal strategy.

“The lawsuit unnecessarily inflamed a very difficult and contentious negotiation. It also sent a very bad message that it’s OK to sue members of our own City family; the very ones who swore an oath to serve, protect and defend its citizens,” Medina stated. “That’s not the type of City we are, and we should not have sued police officers and firefighters to throw out an agreement that City leadership previously signed and executed in good faith.”

Councilmember Krier, one of the most vocal critics of the unions’ collective bargaining efforts, said he was not surprised by Judge Tanner’s ruling. He added, however, that the City should not be dissuaded from proving that the evergreen clause – the police union’s previously proposed new contract would not serve taxpayers’ best interests.

“Because of the serious state constitutional issue at the heart of this lawsuit, we believe the Texas Supreme Court will ultimately decide this case — and do so in favor of the City of San Antonio. The unions’ claims of victory are premature,” Krier said.

“This should come as no surprise at all to City Council members. We have been fully briefed on the City’s legal strategy and the likelihood that this case is headed to the State’s highest court through a series of appeals. Let’s not use Judge Tanner’s ruling as an opportunity to play politics with this process.”

Krier said SAPOA has refused “a more than fair offer from the City,” and that, as a result, the City faces the possibility of a contract that threatens to gradually squeeze out other basic services, such as streets, drainage and parks.

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*Top image: SAPOA President Mike Helle explains the police union’s position on the lawsuit during a neighborhood forum about the negotiations hosted by the Highland Hills Neighborhood Association on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.

City, Police Union Meet Again, This Time in a Courtroom

Police Union Lawsuit Hearing Pushed Back to Dec. 1

City Lawsuit vs. Unions Gets First Court Hearing

City Moves Forward With Police Union Contract Lawsuit

11 thoughts on “Judge Rules Against City in Lawsuit, City to Appeal

    • This is all about trying to get total leverage for the City. The City admitted under oath during the trial that It’s actually saving money while in Evergreen because during Evergreen the city doesn’t have to give overall pay raises and the rising cost of healthcare is cheaper then what the pay raises would cost.

      Just FYI, the reason why the City is so short on police officers is because recruiting can’t fill classes. With city leadership constantly attacking our officers as overpaid, no one qualified wants to be a cop. This will eventually have disastrous results as Sculley will, over time, “dumb” down our police force to attract whoever will take the job for the lower pay and benefits.

    • That’s a Sculley fallacy. Public Safety is just over 30% of the overall city budget which is one of the cheapest in the state. Its 66% of the “General Fund” which is a seperate budget within the overall budget.

      • If you’re arguing that the public safety unions make better city policy and financial decisions than the public safety unions you aren’t going to find many citizens that agree with you. Why do you think the public didn’t elect vandeputte?

        • What I’m arguing is that Sculley is only giving half truths to support her manufactured crisis.

          However, since you’re bringing it up, it wasn’t the unions that rammed a questionable and extremely overpriced $3.4 Billion water pipe down our throats. I’m sure there’s absolutely no kick-backs there. Also, regardless of what the Mayor says, it was the unions who stopped the extremely overpriced street car that Council and Sculley were trying to pass.

          The unions through much effort got the signatures to put it to a vote. Once that happened and city leaders saw their hand was forced, they canceled it before the vote to save face and take the credit. You’re welcome.

      • Mike Smith, I think you are failing to understand the basic structure of municipal budgeting.

        The general fund is comprised of monies raised through: Property Tax, Sales Tax, CPS Energy Payment, and Fines.

        The general fund pays for: Police & Fire, Transportation & Capital Improvements, Parks & Recreation

        Yes, Police & Fire take up 66% of the general fund. The general fund makes up 43% of the city’s total budget. The other 57% is made up of restricted funds (31%) and Capital Budget (26%).

        Restricted funds pay for: Airport, Solid Waste, and Development Services – these monies come from a specific place and can only be used for a specific reason.

        Capital budget funds include the 2012 Bond Program, Park projects, Library projects, and the Convention Center Expansion. Again, money held for very specific reasons.

        Again, the general fund pays for basic city services: Streets, Parks, Library, Human Services, Health, Animal Care, and Code Enforcement – included as a basic city service is Police & Fire.

        Police & Fire consume 66.5% of the general fund. While the city has other funds, those funds cannot pay for police and fire. Only general funds can.

        You are lying when you say otherwise. Please read up on the budget before spewing union lies. You can find it here for your reference:
        http://www.sanantonio.gov/Portals/0/Files/budget/FY2016/FY16-Adopted-Document.pdf

  1. The reason VanDePutte lost is because less than 10% of eligible voters in SA failed to vote. Pathetic! It’s a very simple explanation; don’t show up to vote and you get what happened in May. The fact is that the citizens of our city, especially inner city citizens, once again failed to exercise the most important fundamental civic duty we possess. The pattern repeats itself over and over again. How do you explain how a very conservative mayor wins a mayoral election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city? Because people suffer from “voter apathy” which is just another word for voter laziness. VanDePutte lost the election because of the older, white, conservative Christian voter that goes to the polls EVERY time. The vote in May had nothing to do with public safety unions, it was a vote against a career Democratic State Senator by conservatives who VOTE. Mayor Taylor is sitting at City Hall because of a lazy electorate and her promotion of an “awe shucks” attitude that she’s not a career politician (even though she made several meetings on the far north sides of town promising property tax cuts if elected). Sorry folks, Mayor Taylor’s election had nothing to do with public safety.

  2. Lawyers predicting better chances on appeal are engaging in pr efforts and nothing more. “Old School”lawyers would not be engaging in such fanciful antics; probably only serves to agitate the appellate judges who will decide the case.

  3. The Evergreen Clause decision should be appealed now. The union didn’t “win” and my understanding was that the judge didn’t rule on the city’s claim other than to say it should go to trial and be heard and decided (not given summary judgement).
    It would be good to get a definitive decision on proper parameters for use of this clause if used on future.

    I disagree with idea that hurts city reputation to sue over bad past decisions. The city will have a stronger reputation if its known that bad decisions will be challenged. Whatever imagined “cost” that this would add to future contracts would more than be made up by the benefit if knowing there is oversight and accountability.

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