As an elected official, I am committed to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars while governing with transparency and openness. These have been my principles since I took office in 2013, and I remain committed to these same values today.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) union contract has been studied, discussed, and addressed for over two years. Numerous issues were discussed in B and executive sessions regarding healthcare benefits, and the cost of healthcare coverage for police and fire members, and their spouses. Discussions and debate have included the duration of healthcare coverage after a first responder retires, whether expenses for public safety support services should be attributed to the public safety budget, and the actual percentage of the city’s budget dedicated to public safety.
I have listened patiently and deliberated with purpose to understand these complex issues. I have gathered information in open meetings, executive sessions, and on one-on-one meetings with my colleagues, San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) leadership, San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA), and the City Manager and budget staff.
SAPOA has indicated they are open to negotiating the length of the Evergreen Clause. The Evergreen Clause became the last point of contention when the City and SAPOA broke talks on September 25, 2015. The difference was manageable, but the City missed the opportunity to reach an agreement because their criteria for a new Evergreen Clause was driven by the goal of protecting their interests in the lawsuit against SAFF. My hope was that with only this issue remaining, we could complete the negotiations and restore positive relations with the union and our employees, better described as our family. Instead, right before we reached the finish line, negotiations broke because the city was more focused on protecting their legal position than reaching an agreement.
I signed a City Council Request (CCR) along with four other colleagues asking that the Evergreen lawsuit be dropped. This CCR should have gone to the Governance Committee for consideration of a full and open discussion as a City Council agenda item. This would allow citizens to hear the debate through open channels. My concerns have been the following:
- The Governance Committee never considered the CCR presented by 5 of the 11 members of council.
- The City Council as a body never voted in open session whether we should enter into a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Evergreen Clause.
- The cost or projected costs of the Evergreen lawsuit and appeals process has never been presented for discussion or approval by the City Council.
The City traditionally holds community budgetary sessions to engage the community before adopting the city budget with briefings on current and future projects and their related costs. However, we have not openly discussed the merit of a legal challenge or related costs in open session. This is not in keeping with a democratic process where citizens have access to City Council deliberations and are able to evaluate and question the merit of specific actions.
I continue to receive calls from constituents on these negotiations. Calls have centered on the several consistent themes:
- Why were previous contracts executed and signed by the former City Attorney and current City Manager, yet now are being challenged as unconstitutional?
- The cost of union negotiations to date and whether the expense of insurance and audit consultants and negotiating attorneys is justifiable.
- What will the Evergreen lawsuit cost and how long will it take?
- Why is the city suing its own employees?
- Why aren’t taxes being directed to streets, lighting, sidewalks, curbs, and other city services rather than lawsuits and nonproductive hostilities with the city’s first responders?
I pride myself in listening and leading with a voice of reason. I have listened and learned from my constituents. I appreciate their depth of understanding of the issues. Most of all, I appreciate their honesty and the creative solutions they offer.
Recently, while walking to the grocery store, a couple stopped to talk to me.
“You have been on council now for three years and you have had two children," the couple said. "How old will your children be when a contract is finally negotiated? Stop spending money on saying no to the union and spend it on keeping our neighborhood safe.”
The court has ruled and I respect their opinion. Further, I am concerned that the City’s constitutional challenge of a contract written by the City and approved in good faith by City Council might tarnish our credibility with future creditors, vendors and collective bargaining bodies.
The City of San Antonio lost the challenge; it’s time to accept the decision, return to the negotiating table and finalize this contract. A new contract is in the interest of both parties, and the citizens of San Antonio. It is time to move forward as the unified team of elected leaders, staff and unions.
This commentary was originally published on Sunday, Dec. 13.
*Top Image: Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) wears a Vision Zero shirt to promote the idea of zero pedestrian fatalities in San Antonio. Photo by Joan Vinson.