Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Starting Friday, online and over-the-phone polls will open to the more than 2,140 San Antonio Police union members. They will have seven days to vote on a proposed five-year contract with the City of San Antonio, a document more than two years in the making that neither side seems to like very much.
A strong majority of City Council members appear ready to support Mayor Ivy Taylor and vote to approve the contract if it is ratified by SAPD’s rank and file between Aug. 6-12. Opposition to the deal from Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) may not be enough to affect Taylor’s solid majority, but it has served to put serious, unresolved issues between the City and union out in the open for public scrutiny.
Saldaña is saying publicly what others have said privately, namely that the City failed to use the collective bargaining process to fix contract terms that limit the ability of police officials to discipline or terminate bad cops or those who commit serious infractions and typically suffer minimal disciplinary action.
For two years, the on-again, off-again negotiations focused on health care benefits and wages. The contract measures protecting officers who break the law or violate department policies only became an issue toward the end of the process as more and more incidents were documented of police officers shooting unarmed black men across the nation. San Antonio has had its own share of such shootings.
If some on the City side are unhappy with the contact, they are not alone. The view from the union side is that negotiators made too many concessions to the City by agreeing to have members pay for health care benefits that for decades have been paid by taxpayers. Police union members are being actively lobbied by officials in the firefighters union, who have refused to come to the bargaining table, who are now telling police they are getting a bad deal and should reject the contract.
Meanwhile, San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle narrowly won re-election during the bargaining process, and some City officials fear that this month’s union vote could be a referendum on Helle as much as a vote for or against the contract terms.
One month ago, City and union officials were all smiles and handshakes at a press conference announcing a new deal, but the goodwill seemed staged and likely short-lived. Fast forward to the looming vote and all sides are on edge, uncertain of the outcome.
Helle, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Mayor Ivy Taylor celebrated the deal as a worthy compromise more than a month ago at the press conference on the steps of City Hall. While a majority of Council members stood with them in tacit support, there was no discussion or vote, Saldaña said. The collective sigh of relief the mediated settlement agreement brought to many on July 15 may have been premature. He was the only council member absent from the steps that day – in part due to a scheduling conflict.
“But I felt uncomfortable going to stand in front of City Hall without knowing what was in the contract,” said Saldaña, who has since had plenty of time to digest the terms of the 237-page collective bargaining agreement. He spoke to the Rivard Report in a phone interview while traveling in New York.
“There are parts that I can live with and things I can swallow that are not great, but to get nothing in the way of police reform is a surprise,” he said.
He sent an email to Taylor on July 19 outlining his concerns, the details of which were first published in a San Antonio Express-News column. Saldaña told Taylor that he was inspired by recent weekend experiences riding with SAPD officers on patrol and after conversations with “the faith community on the Eastside.”
The deal agreed to by the City in mediation is far and away the best it put on the table over two years: a 14% wage increase, 3% signing bonus, and a health care package that includes an option that for the first time in San Antonio would have officers’ family members pay monthly premiums. The 10-year evergreen clause was reduced to eight years, and if approved, will not carry a 10% health care premium increase each year it remains in effect without a new contract.
As part of the agreement, the City’s lawsuit against the police union’s 10-year evergreen clause is on hold and goes away only if the contract is signed. The fire union is defending its 10-year evergreen clause in a separate lawsuit. The last contracts expired in September 2014, so the evergreen clause will have been in effect for nearly two years by the time the votes are counted and reported.
Union members might resent the loss of premium-free health care and the limitations imposed on the evergreen clause, but the wage increase is far more than most workers are receiving in this economy, and is sufficient to undermines one of the City’s main goals set at the outset of negotiations,to keep public safety spending at 66% of the General Fund. Spending is projected to hit 66.3% in 2020 and 67.6% in 2021. Whether it continues to escalate from there depends entirely on how effective the new health care package proves to be.
What concerns Saldaña the most, however, are the sections of the contract addressing officer disciplinary actions (in Article 28), which were left unchanged.
The City’s negotiating team had a list of at least seven adjustments to Article 28, he said. None of them made it into the final draft. The two that stuck out to Saldaña were 1) a kind of statute of limitations for prior misconduct that limits how far back the police chief can look into an officer’s record when making disciplinary decisions and 2) a clause that automatically turns a short suspension into a written reprimand after two years.
“Like any organization, there are bad apples; those who will stray from training and react inappropriately,” Saldaña wrote to Taylor. “In those instances, we should acknowledge the truth and use the entirety of an officer’s records – unchanged regardless of years passed – to register progressive discipline and assign training where possible.”
He wants to see more discussion and justification of these items before moving forward with the contract.
“I don’t want to say that we let it go because we got tired,” he said on Monday. “At the very least we need to get it on the radar” for future contract negotiations.
“If there is a solid case to be made for (these items), then great,” he said, conceding that perhaps he simply hasn’t heard one yet. “Mike Helle is doing his job – protecting his constituents – and I’m doing the same.”
Taylor responded to Saldaña’s email the next day, calling the contract an opportunity to “create an environment where we can work effectively together.”
If this deal dies, then the lawsuit kicks back in, the mayor pointed out in her response. “I believe it is reckless for us, our police, and our citizens to be at odds during these challenging times.”
The contract negotiation has always carried with it sensitive threads to the national conversation on police brutality, but as the body count for black men and police officers continues to increase in the U.S., so does the desire to seal the deal locally between the City and police union.
“We were more focused on the fiscal aspects before, but I believe we have to discuss those (other terms) now,” she said in March.
“Nothing has changed,” Taylor told me Monday morning. “We did revisit them through the meeting that I had with Mike Helle and determined that there was not a path forward (on those items) through the negotiations and mediated settlement.
“Ultimately our goal is to get a contract passed so we discussed the possibility of having some sort of task force or continued discussion – (after the) passage of the contract – on police-community relations and disciplinary action.”
She was uncertain what form these discussions would take.
“I think having the contract put to bed lowers the stakes for both sides,” she said, hoping that those discussions could take place in the open instead of behind the scenes in mediation sessions like the proposal on the table today.
But those mediation sessions – which were court-ordered and private – were “absolutely” what allowed the two sides to come together, Helle said after the new proposal was announced in June.
“One side was afraid to maybe look bad in front of the camera,” he said. “There was always this panic back and forth. I think the mediation piece took a lot of the side-show out of (the negotiation process) and down to the brass tacks.”
I asked Taylor on Monday if she thought the stakes might be too low for such procedural discussions absent contract negotiations.
“That’s up for argument,” she said, “but I’m going to do my best to make sure that conversation happens.”
Helle did not respond to interview requests, but police union spokesperson Greg Brockhouse said he was surprised by Saldaña’s “11th hour” attempt to take down the negotiated settlement that “will bring the City back from the brink of infighting with its law enforcement.”
The contract’s terms have been discussed for more than two years, but most of the focus has been on salary and health care. The councilman had plenty of time to bring disciplinary reform to the foreground, he said.
If City Council reopens the terms of this proposal, that means the lawsuit is back on, Brockhouse said, which costs the City and police union money while costing police officers and citizens of San Antonio morale.
“(Saldaña is) creating a problem where one doesn’t exist,” he said, citing San Antonio’s ahead-of-its-time community policing initiatives introduced by Chief William McManus. According the SAPD’s website, incidents of use of force and complaints filed are down. “Change the contract? For what?”
When SAPD Officer Robert Encina fatally shot Marquise Jones more than two years ago, McManus firmly defended the officer, but conflicting witness reports permeated parts of the community with doubt.
San Antonio has seen its share of conflict, Brockhouse said, but “we’re not Baltimore. We’re not Ferguson.”
He’s confident the union will participate in a task force or dialogue that occurs after the contract is signed. “I’ve never heard any officer say they didn’t want to be better at their job.”
Councilman Cris Medina (D7), a police union ally who was praised by Brockhouse for helping Taylor “keep both sides talking” after formal negotiation sessions broke down in September 2015, said the deal balances the needs of the City and rank and file.
“The salaries are at a fair amount, taking into consideration the dangerous work that our officers do every day,” Medina said.
He would have preferred a contract that kept within the 66% mark, but he doesn’t mind stretching “within a very close percentage,” Medina said. “There will always be ample opportunity to evaluate and certainly dismiss bad apples in the department. That will never go away and it shouldn’t go away. The leadership will agree, we want the best officers in our city. … Right now it’s about getting this deal done.”
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) is withholding judgement on the contract until the union vote is completed.
“I want the police union to go through their process before we would muddle the water with upwards or down votes,” he said. “What we were trying to achieve with contract negotiation for both police and the City is a sustainable agreement on both financial and community relations and I think that modernizing policing tactics is certainly a priority for (San Antonio) and for police departments nationwide. We ought to be looking forward at all times to give the chief and leadership tools.
“This is an extraordinarily delicate situation in which police and public safety hang in the balance and unfortunately the better part of two years has been the subject of political volleys,” he added.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele said that while some of the contract terms will likely be applied similarly between the police and fire union, “health insurance is the number one issue for us. Over a pay raise,” he said. He cited the increased risk firefighters have for certain types of cancer.
“Messing with the total wellbeing of my troops, that’s a problem for the citizens,” Steele said.
He doesn’t know how fire union members would feel about adopting a similar contract because the fire union has yet to send out a member survey. He said his focus has been on challenging the City’s appeal to the evergreen lawsuit in court.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly state the total % of recurring salary increases. It is 14%, not 17%.
Top image: San Antonio Park Police officers wait as they accompany ride groups. Photo by Scott Ball.
Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive.