San Antonio City Council appears likely to green-light the estimated $92 million, five-year proposed contract with the local police union on Thursday.

The contract needs six “yes” votes to pass; five council members, including the mayor, have said they will vote to approve the new contract, which includes major changes to the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct and gives more authority to the chief and the city to keep fired officers off the force — the city’s top priorities during negotiations.

Members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association voted overwhelmingly to approve the contract on April 26.

“The agreement addresses concerns about disciplinary procedures and processes as well as providing fair compensation and benefits for our officers,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday. “I commend the negotiators for a smooth process. I believe the proposed contract is worthy of council support.”

Council members Phyllis Viagran (D3), Manny Pelaez (D8), John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10) told the Report they would vote for the contract. Other council members said they were undecided or declined to comment.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said he would vote “no,” and he joined police reform groups on the steps of City Hall Wednesday.

“We made some improvements [to the contract] … I don’t think we made enough,” he said.

Those groups — including ACT 4 SA, Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas Action Fund urged council to reject the contract as proposed. Among other issues, they want to see stronger, independent oversight of the department, a shorter contract length and identity protection for people who file complaints against officers.

“A NO vote on the [contract] does not mean that you do not agree with other
important agreements and reforms in the contract, simply that you know a
key piece was missed,” the reform groups stated in an open letter to city leaders.

The proposed contract makes significant and long overdue progress, but it’s not enough to ensure police accountability, said Ananda Tomas, founder and executive director of ACT 4 SA, said Wednesday. “Police accountability and civilian oversight are non-negotiable.”

Negotiations around the proposed contract, which includes 15% in base pay increases for officers and a 2% bonus once the deal is approved, wrapped up in March. The increase would make local police officers among the highest-paid in the state, second to Austin.

If council wants to make changes to the current proposed contract, those terms would have to be renegotiated and approved by both the city and the San Antonio Police Officers Association.

“I haven’t seen a reason to delay,” Viagran said. The contract addresses the disciplinary process, and the accountability, the wages and the health care. It hits all those highlights that we need to take care of in order to move forward.”

The negotiation process took just over one year, during which the union fought off an attempt to strip the police union of its ability to collectively bargain in the same way it has for decades. In May, San Antonio voters narrowly rejected that proposition, which police reform activists, including Tomas, worked to get on the ballot following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

While there had been talk among council members about restructuring the Complaint and Administrative Review Board, the 14-member board that reviews police misconduct cases and make punishment recommendations to the chief, that ultimately did not land on the final list of priorities that the city’s negotiation team pursued in the new contract.

“City Council gave our negotiation team instructions on how to negotiate, what our negotiating points were, and where we would be willing to move,” said Pelaez, who is an employment attorney. “The law says that … you have to negotiate in good faith.”

We can’t just “scrap it and start all over again,” he added. “We will be accused of an unfair labor practice for having negotiated in bad faith.”

While the city didn’t get everything it wanted out of the proposed contract, neither did the union, Courage said.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve attained probably 95% of what we were trying to reach,” Courage said.

Councilwomen Teri Castillo (D5) and Ana Sandoval (D7) declined to comment. Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) told the Report they’re keeping their powder dry.

“My vote will be based on the needs of the good people I represent,” said Havrda adding that she has “heard much on the matter from my constituents and look forward to hearing the deliberations from my colleagues.”

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) also declined to comment on how he will vote, but said he has several concerns about the proposed contract.

“The bottom line for this is we need to be able to fire the bad police officers and make sure they stay fired — and I don’t know if we’ve made that case,” Bravo said.

A key element in the proposed contract is that the chief decides what misconduct is detrimental to the department — making it harder for fired cops to get their jobs back. Under the narrower jurisdiction of a third-party arbitrator who reviews officer appeals, the city can better challenge their rulings in municipal court, city officials have said. Under the current system, an arbitrator has more leeway to overturn the chief’s decisions for any reason.

Rocha Garcia applauded the work of the city’s negotiating team. The new contract would “rebalance the disciplinary process in a way that still allows for due process for the accused officer and gives proper weight to the police chief’s decisions.”

During closed sessions with city attorneys, council members received thorough and frequent updates on how the negotiations were going over the past year, Perry said.

“We were kept [in] lockstep all the way through the process during the executive sessions and I can tell you, there was healthy discussion during those times,” he said. “I’m fully supportive of this. I don’t know if it’ll be a unanimous agreement or not on this, but we’ll wait and see who pushes which button.”

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