Chris Steele, San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association president, speaks at City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
Chris Steele, San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association president, speaks at City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Local police and firefighter unions on Thursday repeated their promise to return to collective bargaining negotiations if the City drops its evergreen clause lawsuit. City officials said the lawsuit will go away only when the unions sign new contracts with the City.

Several dozen members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA) stood on the steps of City Hall while SAPOA President Mike Helle and SAPFA President Chris Steele spoke on behalf of their respective unions.

Helle and Steele addressed State District Judge Martha Tanner’s recent denial of the City’s request for a summary judgment against the unions concerning a clause in fire and police collective bargaining contracts. The contracts’ evergreen clauses will keep the terms of the existing contract in place for 10 years after it expired in September 2014 or until a new agreement is reached.

The clause has been a source of contention between the unions and the City, whose leaders say the clause is unconstitutional as it prolongs existing salaries and benefits to a point that they may begin to saddle the City with an unplanned debt.

The City pursued its pending lawsuit after the police union ended months of on-again, off-again negotiations in September. The fire union has yet to come to the negotiating table.

Union officials said the City shouldn’t bother appealing Judge Tanner’s decision and instead save the money it will spend on continued litigation.

The City has spent $169,000 on the lawsuit to-date, said Jeff Coyle, the City’s Government and Public Affairs director.

Mike Helle, San Antonio Police Officers Association president, speaks about the City's collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Mike Helle, San Antonio Police Officers Association president, speaks about the City’s collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

“You lost the lawsuit. Accept defeat in a sportsmanlike manner,” said Steele, who recently was elected to his seventh, two-year term as president. His organization has more than 1,600 members.

A SAPOA press release claimed that City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s current contract is perpetual and has no end date. But officials responded that the City manager is an at-will employee who can be fired by the City Council at any time.

The police and fire unions feel that the City is battling against collective bargaining altogether, Steele said. He recited local government code that refers to collective bargaining as a “fair and practical method for determining compensation and other conditions of employment.”

The police union would “work tirelessly” to get a deal done within 30 days of a dropped lawsuit, if the City would drop it, said Helle. Five Council members have, through press releases, expressed a desire for the City to at least pause litigation in the wake of Tanner’s ruling.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) posted an op-ed piece with the Rivard Report, which said there was no need for an appeal, and that both sides should just return to the negotiation table and finish.

Mayor Ivy Taylor, while speaking to a reporter, echoed a statement she issued last week, recommending that the police union to return to the negotiating table, help the City to arrive at a new contract and effectively stop litigation.

The City will wait until early January to determine if it will proceed with filing an appeal, said Taylor, adding that the police union has had ample time to return to negotiations.

“We have sweetened the pot over and over. The last offer was very generous for police officers and their families, while it let the City achieve its objectives of maintaining health care costs,” she said. “We have to get those costs under control.”

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) defended Sculley’s managerial performance, saying that while the City has 1,000 fewer public employees than before Sculley’s arrival in San Antonio a decade ago. Krier noted that Sculley has since hired 100 more net police officers.

“If we were still paying for those thousand employees we had the day she got here, we would be spending millions of dollars that we are not spending. Why? Because she came here and imposed efficient management,” he said. With the City’s AAA bond rating, Sculley is “worth every penny she’s paid and then some.”

Krier said if the unions do care about taxpayers’ money, they should just return to negotiations. He added that, despite recent statements from five Council members, there is Council support for proceeding with litigation if needed.

“Remember, the City did not leave the negotiating table. The City is ready to sit down anytime today, tomorrow. The union left the negotiating table,” he said.

*Top Image: SAPFA President Chris Steele speaks on the City’s collective bargaining lawsuit. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Related Stories:

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

Mayor Offers Police Union a Carrot

Gonzales Calls on City to Drop Evergreen Lawsuit

Judge Rules Against City in Lawsuit, City to Appeal

City, Police Union Meet Again, This Time in a Courtroom

Police Union: Drop Lawsuit or Negotiations are Dead

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.