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.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.