U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) stood alongside Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and former Councilwomen Maria Berriozábal and Patti Radle on Monday as they called on Mayor Ivy Taylor to reopen contract negotiations with the police union to address concerns with disciplinary and arbitration procedures.

“Let’s do better. Let’s do more. Let’s be stronger,” Radle said. “It’s a simple step that is suggested here.”

The proposed five-year collective bargaining agreement was overwhelmingly approved by union membership earlier this month following two years of contentious, on-again, off-again negotiations between the City and police union over wages and health care benefits.

Disciplinary measures did not factor into negotiations until the closing months of the process after police shootings of unarmed black men across the country and in San Antonio became a major issue nationally and locally.

Mayor Taylor’s eleventh-hour effort to engage police union leadership on disciplinary issues as part of the negotiations were met with rejection, although Mike Helle, president of the police union, has said the union is open to meeting with City officials on those issues outside of the contract process.

The current contract, like its predecessors, allows for short suspensions to be automatically reduced to written reprimands over time on an officer’s personnel record.

City Council will vote this Thursday, Sept. 1, on the five-year contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association. Saldaña is the only member of council to state his intention to vote against approval.

Click here to download the revised contract. 

Saldaña said he has at least two fellow Council members considering a “no” vote. Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) stated in a text sent to the Rivard Report on Monday that he will vote against the contract because its financial terms will elevate public safety spending above 66% of the General Fund in the latter two years of the deal.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) told the Rivard Report on Monday that he remains undecided.

Mayor Taylor otherwise appears to have a solid majority joining her in a vote to approve the contract.

“Good officers represent the very best of our society and they should be cherished here in San Antonio,” Rep. Castro said Monday. “But over the years we’ve had some troubling experiences with some officers and it does us no good as a community and it does the Council no good to ignore those things.”

From left: Former City Council members Patti Radle and Maria Berriozábal, look on as U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro speaks in support of Councilman Rey Saldaña's request for police union contract adjustments.  Photo by Scott Ball.
From left: Former City Council members Patti Radle and Maria Berriozábal, look on as U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro speaks in support of Councilman Rey Saldaña’s request for police union contract adjustments. Photo by Scott Ball.

Saldaña’s proposal includes removing and revising several sections, focused on Article 28, Section 19, which addresses disciplinary actions.

He cited officer involvement with domestic violence, sexual assault, drugs, and other crimes. While San Antonio has not made national headlines for police corruption or patterns of excessive-use-of-force complaints, local activists have protested shootings of black citizens.

“We read what happens in other cities and we’re always so happy that it’s not happening in San Antonio,” said Berriozábal. “Good policies – good contracts are made for when things don’t go right.”

(Read More: #BlackLivesMatter Activists Call on City Council to ‘Police the Police’)

Rep. Castro commended the City and police union for arriving at a health care and wage compromise, but added, “we need to make sure that this contract does everything possible to not only save money, but also to save lives.”

The press conference on Monday comes nearly one week after reports surfaced that U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro have been lobbying members of City Council to reject the deal. The Castro twins are native San Antonians, but political observers have noted the uncommonality of national officeholders weighing in at the local level.

Secretary Castro told the San Antonio Express-News last week, “I am convinced that many good police officers and the community will benefit if officers are held to a higher standard of conduct, not a lower one.”

The Case Against Reopening Negotiations

The police union and the City have been in talks for more than two years about the next collective bargaining agreement, a process that deteriorated into name calling and a well-funded union campaign aimed at removing City Manager Sheryl Sculley from her position.

The current contract expired in September 2014, triggering a 10-year evergreen clause, now the subject of a City lawsuit, that keeps the contract terms in place until a new one is ratified. The new contract includes 14% in wage increases, a 3% signing bonus, a health care option that would have officer dependents pay premiums for the first time, and other terms.

The firefighters union, which has criticized the contract, has broken precedent by refusing the bargain with City officials and follow closely behind the police union in agreeing to a new contract.

Saldaña said he had assumed that initial concerns about disciplinary actions outlined in February 2014 would carry through and be addressed in the final contract, but when he saw they weren’t in the proposal when it was revealed in June, he began to question the deal that was arrived at in court-ordered mediation sessions behind closed doors.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) calls for his City Council colleagues to vote "no" on the proposed police union contract this Thursday.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) calls for his City Council colleagues to vote “no” on the proposed police union contract this Thursday. Photo by Scott Ball.

Saldaña and other council members did not publicly push for disciplinary reforms during negotiations, but there was unanimous agreement while Secretary Castro was still mayor to not publicly lobby or meddle in the negotiation process.

“So, what the call to action today is, is a call to action to our mayor to step up as a leader and take this issue on,” Saldaña said. “We know that we have an incomplete contract. The mayor has admitted so on the record that this is something that needs to be changed, and we shouldn’t punt it to a future council.”

Taylor has accused former Mayor Castro of doing just that in a recent interview with KSAT 12 News.

“In this round, we are addressing wages and health care and I anticipate, in the next round, we’ll be able to address discipline. When he was mayor, he addressed neither,” Taylor told the local news station last week. Taylor did meet with SAPOA leadership on the issue of disciplinary reform, but those talks fizzled when it became apparent that the progress made on wages and health care would be lost if brought up again.

Rep. Castro responded to Taylor’s criticism of his brother’s work on Monday.

“She can call my brother up and have a conversation with him about that, but that doesn’t do any good for the people and families of San Antonio,” he said. “There is a police contract in front of this City Council and this mayor now. Even assuming there was a shortcoming back then, that’s not an excuse to continue to ignore these issues.”

In fact, the decision to take on the police union over health care benefits was made when Castro was mayor and Taylor was still the District 2 council representative.

Taylor plans on creating a council committee on police-community relations to address concerns about transparency and accountability and other issues in the San Antonio Police Department.

“Key topics for the committee will include a broad, inclusive dialogue to redefine the department’s perceived stakeholders; a better understanding of training opportunities our rank-and-file would like to see more of, such as self-care; how we can broaden recruitment to target specific diverse groups that are under-represented currently, such as foreign-language speakers; and, as an immediate priority, what policies outside of the city’s jurisdiction could help with accountability,” she stated in a news release.

(Read More: Mayor Taylor: New Contract Moves City Forward)

While he expressed appreciation for the dialogue, Saldaña said the only way to get real results is to require “transparency” and “accountability” in the contract.

“Collective bargaining is important. A contract is important. And contracts cannot prevent an officer from overstepping his boundary, but it can make sure that … we’re not letting it go,” he said.

Taylor has joined in the police union’s critique of Saldaña’s timing. The debate unfolds amid speculation that both Saldaña and Nirenberg are laying the groundwork to challenge Taylor for the mayor’s office in the May 2017 elections. Neither one has announced such intentions, but police union leaders have accused Saldaña of using the contract negotiations to “play politics” for advancing his career. It’s a charge he vehemently denies.

“Today I’m not running for mayor,” Saldaña said after the press conference. “Today I’m focused on this issue. If we start delving into the world of politics around this specific issue we get into problems like we do now, which is an incomplete contract.”

Throughout the process there were ample opportunities for Saldaña to raise the issue of disciplinary decisions, said SAPOA spokesman Greg Brockhouse.

“There was a ton of stuff on the agenda at the beginning of contract negotiations,” Brockhouse said. “I think it is startling that after two years he said absolutely nothing. … He assumed other people were doing it. Right up until the mediated settlement (Council) members were receiving briefings all the time.”

Brockhouse acknowledged that it’s Saldaña’s right to bring up issues with the contract, but he noted that if the contract is voted down on Thursday, negotiations would start over and void the Sept. 15 deadline when Council adopts the fiscal year 2017 City Budget that is based on passage of the contract and its financial terms.

SAPOA President Mike Helle speaks to the police union's new wage increase healthcare and clothing allowance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
SAPOA President Mike Helle credits Mayor Ivy Taylor for working with the police union on the proposed contract during a press conference announcing the deal in June 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“(Saldaña) missed a leadership opportunity – it doesn’t mean that the mayor of San Antonio didn’t execute hers,” Brockhouse said. “He’s trying to grab it back and that’s fine. He’s got to convince five of his peers. I think it’s telling that not one stood with him.”

Nirenberg stated in a text Monday that he will be voting against the contract on Thursday because of financial and accountability problems. After three years, the proposed contract is expected to increase public safety spending slightly beyond 66% of the General Fund, to 66.3% and 67.6% in years four and five, respectively. This is an outcome City Council directed the city manager to avoid.

“For the sake of political expedience, the mayor took the position that any deal was a good deal. She was wrong,” Nirenberg stated. “Two years ago, the Council set objectives for an acceptable contract to protect the health of the city, the public, first responders, and their families. This deal shifts the burden to future San Antonians, from cost containment to health to evergreen clause to reform of Article 28.”

The issues Saldaña has with so-called accountability measures outlined in several sections of the contract are being reviewed by other Council members, including Treviño.

“He’s pointing out some things that are important, but I haven’t made my decision yet,” Treviño told the Rivard Report in a phone interview on Monday after the press conference, adding that he likely won’t make up his mind until Thursday morning after further discussion.

“Saldaña believes what he’s doing is something from his heart, so when he asks me to look at something, I will,” Treviño added.

He disagrees with Nirenberg on revisiting financial aspects of the contract.

“It is going to save the City money overall,” Treviño said. “A big priority truly was to get health care worked out,” and this plan starts the City and police union on a path towards sustainability.

As for disciplinary reform, he said, “there really isn’t a wrong side … We’re supposed to be questioning things and going through this process.” 

Treviño sits on the Council’s Criminal Justice, Public Safety, and Service Committee and listened as Taylor outlined her strategy for addressing police-community relations outside of the contract over the next five years.

“Is that the right approach? Only time will tell,” Treviño said.

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org