San Antonio Fire Association attorney Ricky Poole addresses members of the media formally announcing an acceptance to come to the bargaining table with the City.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association attorney Ricky Poole announces the union is ready to start negotiating a new labor deal with the City. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

After more than four years of refusing to negotiate, the firefighters union wants to start labor contract talks with the City of San Antonio next week, and city officials formally accepted the invitation.

During a press conference Thursday morning, union attorney Ricky J. Poole cited the pending retirement of City Manager Sheryl Sculley and a recent “conciliatory” letter from Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) requesting the union start negotiations as two factors that led to the decision. City Council officially appointed Walsh as Sculley’s successor Thursday, and his start date is March 1.

“We believe the time is now,” Poole said, adding that he sent a two-page letter Thursday to newly appointed City Manager Erik Walsh, City Attorney Andrew Segovia, and Brockhouse that proposed a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the union’s headquarters.

Segovia responded later that afternoon, outlining expectations for what will be discussed next week: “logistics and ground rules for future negotiation sessions,” and the “possibility of using a mediator to facilitate productive session.

“We believe the mediated sessions we had in 2017 set a good foundation and framework for moving forward,” he wrote in a letter to the union.

Segovia also asked for the union to clarify and prioritize information requests that the union has submitted to the City.

“I will disregard the invectives and political advocacy peppered throughout your letter and instead focus on addressing the substantive issues,” Segovia wrote.

“We’ve been ready for five years to come to the table, so I think this is a positive sign,” Government & Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle told the Rivard Report, adding that the City has sent about 10 letters to the union requesting meeting dates since before the union’s contract expired in September 2014. An evergreen clause keeps most terms of that contract in place – without pay increases for firefighters – for 10 years.

Contract negotiation meetings will be open to the public, Coyle said.

“Political theatrics aside, I am glad the fire union has finally accepted my invitation to come to the table,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement. “I look forward to good faith negotiations to reach an agreement that protects the taxpayers and finally gives the firefighters the pay raise they deserve.”

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele said last year that the union would come to the table one week after the City dropped its lawsuit challenging the evergreen clause. The City dropped it in November, the same day Sculley announced her retirement, but the union did not respond to the City’s request to negotiate then.

Brockhouse, who used to work as a consultant for the police and fire unions, is expected to run for mayor and has a campaign announcement scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 9. The announcement could pertain to a re-election campaign for his Council seat or to a mayoral run; Brockhouse declined to specify Thursday.

Regardless, the union’s announcement “doesn’t change my mind at all,” he said. “We’re announcing our intentions on the ninth.”

Brockhouse said he hadn’t formally heard from the union since he sent his open letter on Monday.

“I wasn’t certain they were going to come back” and agree to start meeting, he said. “I’m somebody that they trust on this Council. I’m probably the most important, most trusted person on the Council” for the union.

The union also provided reporters with a list of 52 items it submitted as an open-records request to the City on Wednesday, including questions about health care benefits, overtime hours worked, and cancer rates for civilian and uniformed employees.

“Our position is we need information in order to negotiate and so that’s all we’re asking for,” said Poole, who represented the union in previous negotiations. “We’ve asked for information in the past. Sometimes the city has provided that information to us, other times the city has been more slow in getting that information out. This time, we’re hopeful that the information will get to us and we’ll be able to negotiate with that knowledge.”

Click here to download Poole’s letter to the City and list of union information requests.

“We haven’t dug into it yet, but we will,” Coyle said. “We take every single open-records request and follow the letter of the law.”

The union submitted 32 open-record requests from 2013 to 2017, Coyle said, for an estimated 1.5 million pages of information.

“Every one of them has been closed, which means either fulfilled … or there was a failure by the union to follow up or [agree to] pay a cost estimate,” Coyle said, and some documents were restricted from release by the Attorney General’s Office. The City is allowed to charge for the time it takes staff to compile public information.

Coyle said the City will be an “open book” when it comes to transparent negotiations with the union.

During court-ordered mediation in 2017, Segovia wrote, “the mediator was convinced that we had provided more than enough information to negotiate a [collective bargaining agreement]. To avoid any more baseless accusations and for complete clarity please send me a list before our February 6 meeting of any [open record requests] that [the union] believes have not been closed.”

The union’s 52-item request will take several staff members at least a month to compile and review, Segovia wrote, asking that the union prioritize the list to information relevant to negotiations. The City, too, will be requesting information of the union, he added.

Steele, who has avoided public appearances since October, greeted reporters at the entrance of the union’s media room but left the press conference quickly when it ended  and was unavailable for comment.

Coyle and a representative from the City Manager’s office attempted to attend the announcement, but were asked by union leadership to leave the property. The interaction demonstrated the tense relationship between the City and union.

The union led a successful petition drive to get three propositions on the November 2018 ballot that were widely considered an extension of its feud with the City over its contract. Sculley, at the direction of three mayors and City Councils, took a hard line on reining in ballooning health care costs of public safety union employees.

Voters approved Proposition B, limiting the tenure and salary of the next city manager, and Proposition C, giving the union the option to call for binding arbitration in contract negotiations. Accusations and attacks were waged by both sides. Brockhouse was the lone Council member that supported the propositions.

“I think the key to negotiating is to try to put some of those issues in the past as much as you can,” Poole said. “I can tell you, from my personal experience, I don’t remember a contract negotiation over the last decade or two where there hasn’t been some sort of issue being raised with the City.”

In his letter to City officials, Poole emphasized the union’s desire to “take control of their own health care through the establishment of a firefighter-controlled health care trust” and for the City to “stop denying the firefighters that have been diagnosed with cancer the benefits they are entitled to receive under the law.”

During court-ordered mediation sessions in 2017, which were recorded and are available to watch online on the City’s website, the fire union proposed taking over the health care plan. It would receive a bulk payment from the City to cover some costs, but the union would oversee the program the same way it manages its retirement health plan and others.

“That type of trust has now been adopted by a number of cities all across the country,” Poole said. “Because we haven’t been able to negotiate those terms … other cities have taken the lead and we’ve seen success in those cities.”

When Steele brought up the idea in 2018 after the union declined to consider a contract proposal from the City, Coyle said that would be too expensive and the union does not have a good track record for managing such funds.

“That retiree health care plan that the union president has said they like is only 36 percent funded and has a several hundred-million-dollar unfunded liability,” Coyle said at the time.

The issue of cancer rates among firefighters and how they receive compensation if the disease is found to be work-related could become a sticking point in negotiations.

“The incidents of cancer among fire employees are lower than both our police and civilian employees,” Coyle said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com