Scott Ball / Rivard Report
An attorney for the firefighters union on Monday called on Mayor Ron Nirenberg to clarify the City of San Antonio’s stance on a new City charter amendment.
Attorney Ricky J. Poole said not accepting the new rule, which gives the union the right to force binding arbitration on a labor contract, negates the will of San Antonio voters who approved Proposition C on Nov. 6 and goes against Nirenberg’s pledge to end the conflict between the union and the city.
But the mayor said nothing has changed regarding Prop C and its application to negotiations on a new fire union contract.
“As I have said since Nov. 7, the voters have spoken, and we will honor the will of the voters,” he said Monday afternoon in an emailed statement.
City Attorney Andy Segovia, who is a member of the negotiation team, affirmed that the new rule established by Proposition C is an “available tool.”
At a press conference Monday morning, Poole said he sent a letter to Nirenberg, who is not a member of the City’s negotiating team, outlining what Poole called “irresponsible statements” made by the City’s lead negotiator to media members after the first public contract negotiation meeting two weeks ago.
On Feb. 6, Houston-based attorney Jeff Londa said that it was unclear whether Proposition C, a city charter amendment that was approved by voters in November, could legally apply to a contract that also contains a 10-year evergreen clause. The clause keeps most of the terms of the previous contract, which expired in September 2014, in place for one decade. Prop C allows the union to unilaterally declare an impasse in negotiations, allowing the deal to be decided by a panel of professional arbitrators.
“The courts have said that’s a valid clause, so I think there’s an open question as to how the charter amendment meshes with that,” Londa told reporters, adding that the question of the charter amendment’s applicability isn’t relevant now, while the parties are negotiating.
Londa is a Houston-based attorney hired to lead negotiations for the City alongside Segovia.
Poole said how the City views Prop C is relevant to current negotiations if the City is planning to challenge the amendment in court.
“We don’t want to go through another three [or] four [or] five years [and] millions of taxpayer dollars to have to litigate the issue of Proposition C,” Poole said, noting that Londa was the City’s attorney on the evergreen case that was dropped by the City after years of appellate defeats on its challenge. “We’re at a position now where we just want the city to clarify that Proposition C is the law in San Antonio … we’re hopeful that the City – through the mayor – can just nip this in the bud and get this issue resolved.”
Segovia responded to the union Monday afternoon via a letter, indicating that the City of San Antonio and the mayor both recognize that Proposition C and the local government code provide alternative paths for arbitration if the City reaches an impasse with the union.
In his letter, Segovia took issue with the union reaching out to the mayor instead of members of the negotiation team – against protocol the two sides established earlier this month.
“Apparently we need to reinforce that principle because the Firefighters Union seems to have once again resorted to sending acerbic letters and hastily calling news conferences before the City can review the correspondence,” Segovia wrote. “I do not see how that approach is conducive to anything remotely productive.”
The Proposition C discussion came up in the first meeting as part of the process to establish ground rules for negotiations. Both sides agree that the rule of law would be followed, but Londa pushed for any mention of Proposition C be removed. Poole said he is considering a push back during the next negotiation session on Tuesday.
“We’re moving back to that position,” Poole said, adding later that “the idea that there could be a challenge by the City to its own charter that its council has approved would seem ridiculous, although that’s exactly what we saw happen with the last collective bargaining agreement [with the evergreen clause].”
The differences between the local government code pertaining to contract negotiation and Prop C “need to be discussed and addressed if arbitration is a path that will be followed,” Segovia wrote.
Contracts with public safety unions require approval from union membership and City Council.
The two sides are slated to meet Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Henry B. González Convention Center for a second round of talks and again on Friday. The first session took place at the fire union’s headquarters.
The prickly tone of Monday’s exchange may be an early hiccup in otherwise amicable talks between City and union officials – or perhaps foreshadowing of more rancor to come. The fire union’s campaign against City Hall got three propositions on the November ballot, two of which were approved. Proposition C gave the union non-binding arbitration, and Proposition B imposed salary and term limits for future city managers.
Outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley was the target of that referendum and was long criticized by police and fire unions for City leaders to take a strong stance against ballooning health care costs in public safety labor contracts.
Firefighters pay no monthly health care premiums for themselves or their dependents. In a deal struck in 2016, police officers now have a plan option that includes a premium for dependents.
The fire union came to the negotiating table only after Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) – a union ally and former fire union political consultant – sent a letter asking it to do so. Brockhouse announced his candidacy for mayor earlier this month.
“Jeff Londa just needs to worry about the negotiation of the contract. … It was a mistake to mention [Prop C],” Brockhouse told the Rivard Report. The first meeting earlier this month seemed productive, he added, “[Londa] needs to stay in his lane.”
The May 4 mayoral election is 75 days away and the fire union negotiations have already emerged as a leading campaign issue between Brockhouse and Nirenberg.
It’s unclear when negotiations will conclude – state law allows for them to continue for 60 days with 15-day extensions if both sides agree to them.