"We're in for a long process."
That's how Michael Bernard, an attorney representing the City of San Antonio, summed up what could lie ahead in the continuing legal battle over the evergreen clause in the collective bargaining agreements with police and firefighters.
State District Judge Martha Tanner heard arguments on Tuesday from attorneys on both sides of the City’s lawsuit challenging the 10-year clause contained in its agreements with the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA).
The police union made its case this week in a call for a summary judgment, competing with a similar request filed by the City, each side seeking the legal equivalent of a first round knockout. Tanner heard the City and firefighters union's sides of the issue on Nov. 10, where the City sought a summary judgment against SAFA.
Following the two-hour police union hearing, Tanner said she would spend one week reviewing findings before rendering a decision. Tanner has the option of combining both unions' cases or keeping them separate in her ruling.
Bernard, Craig Deats, an Austin attorney who represented SAPOA on Tuesday, and local attorney Ricky Poole, representing SAFA, all have said appeals likely will result from Tanner's ruling no matter which way she goes.
The City filed the lawsuit in November 2014. The hearings are the latest developments following 19 months of on-again, off-again contract negotiations with the police union. The firefighters' union leaders never did agree to come to the bargaining table with the City. The five-year pact for the police and fire unions expired on Sept. 30, 2014, but its provisions remain in effect more than one year later thanks to the evergreen clause.
Bernard, addressing the firefighters contract, argued that local government should be nimble enough to react to surrounding economic changes in the duration of a multi-year contract as the City has with the police union.
"The question is, will that be okay in 2018, 2019, 2020?" Bernard asked rhetorically. The evergreen clause enables the terms in the existing collective bargaining contracts to last through Sept. 30, 2024.
Bernard added that many issues of contention could be fixed if a new contract were to have language giving the City Council flexibility to address future costs, such as health care coverage.
As with the firefighters union, the City argues the evergreen clause for the police union is unconstitutional and violates public policy because it results in an unanticipated and booked debt taken on by the City.
"It's a question of whether a contract can create a debt that goes on for years and years and years without making certain provisions, and this contract doesn't (provide provisions)," Bernard added.
Deats said health care benefits, a top sticking point among the City and the two unions, is a basic ordinary expense in a collective bargaining agreement, and no different than salary or other benefits. He added the lawsuit represents an attack on the practice of collective bargaining itself.
"The Texas Supreme Court has said it's a City's ordinary running expenses, and what's more ordinary than a police officer's salary and benefits?" Deats added.
Deats also said both parties could invoke an impasse procedure statute, which essentially would let City voters decide specific contractual issues every two years. Bernard countered that is not practical because the existing contract would simply linger while debt accumulates.
*Top image: Craig Deats (left), San Antonio Police Officers Association attorney, addresses State District Judge Martha Tanner in a lawsuit hearing with the City of San Antonio at the Bexar County Courthouse on Tuesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.