The City of San Antonio negotiation team (left) sits across from the SAPOA negotiation team (right). Photo by Scott Ball.
The City of San Antonio negotiation team (left) sits across from the SAPOA negotiation team (right) during a meeting on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Attorneys representing the City of San Antonio and police union may soon be in the same room again – but not necessarily for another court proceeding and certainly not for a contract negotiation session. On Wednesday, the 4th Court of Appeals granted the City’s request to have a mediator step in and try to resolve the City’s lawsuit against the police and fire unions that challenges the 10-year evergreen clause in the collective bargaining agreement.

Lawsuit proceedings will continue while mediation takes place. The City filed briefs with the court on Wednesday for its appeal that challenges the lower court’s December ruling against the City. The San Antonio Police Officers Association has 30 days to file its own briefs – unless it is granted an extension.

The clause allows the terms of the contract to stay in place for up to 10 years if a new agreement is not reached through the collective bargaining agreement. The police and firefighter unions’ five-year contracts with the City expired Sept. 30, 2014 and have been “in evergreen” ever since. Union members do not receive basic pay raises while the evergreen clause is in effect. The City and the police union have been at an impasse for months in what is now more than two years of unsuccessful efforts to forego a new agreement in which union members for the first time would contribute to the cost of health care by paying monthly premiums and co-pays for doctor’s visit and prescriptions that are customary for the City’s civilian employees and virtually everyone else who has health care coverage.

The firefighters have never come to the bargaining table, and instead have engaged in petition drives that helped kill the VIA Metro Transit’s streetcar project and now take aim at approved water projects and sewage service rate increases by the San Antonio Water System. Critics say both efforts are political retaliation against the City to try to pressure it into more favorable terms, a charge that union leaders deny.

The City’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the evergreen clause was filed nearly two months after the existing contract expired, but it wasn’t until September 2015 that the police union backed out of contract negotiations. Police union and City officials had agreed on a sustainable wage and health care package that rivaled deals in other Texas cities, but the union is now standing by its ultimatum: drop the lawsuit or we’ll stay away from the bargaining table and see you in court.

Mediation could crack open the door to some sort of settlement, or it could fail and leave the parties where they stood before the judge’s ruling.

“You go into a mediation with an open mind, so we’re doing that,” said Michael Bernard, a former City Attorney now in private practice who is one of several attorneys representing the City. “I think both sides are.”

The first step is agreeing on a mediator. Agreement hasn’t been a defining quality of the two sides’ relationship, but Bernard thinks that could be accomplished in a matter of days.

“It’s possible that they could refuse to choose a mediator,” Bernard said. “But I don’t anticipate (choosing a mediator) as an insurmountable task.”

There are no deadlines associated with the court-ordered mediation. Discussions that take place during those sessions aren’t binding, he said. “It’s just someone facilitating discussion between two sides.”

Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard Report archive here.

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Top image: The City of San Antonio negotiation team (left) sits across from the SAPOA negotiation team (right) during a meeting on Sept. 23, 2015.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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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