Mayor Ivy Taylor now presides over an increasingly divided City Council after half its members moved Tuesday without success to force the City to abandon lawsuits against the police and firefighter unions.
The lawsuits, filed in early November, aim to eliminate a controversial “evergreen clause” in the now-expired collective bargaining agreements and pressure the unions to bargain for a new contract with concessions.
The evergreen clause calls for contract provisions, including pay and benefits, to remain in effect for as long as 10 years in the event the City and unions are unable or unwilling to reach agreement on a new contract. City attorneys assert the provision violates the Texas Constitution and serves as a disincentive for the unions to come to the bargaining table. Such clauses typically remain in effect only for 30-90 days.
District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina and four fellow Council members signed a so-called Council-consideration request on Tuesday that sought to bring the matter before the Council’s Governance Committee, which Mayor Taylor chairs. If approved, the matter would then move to the Council agenda for debate and a vote early in the new year.
The other signatories are Ray Lopez (D-6), Shirley Gonzales (D-5), Rebecca Viagran (D-3), and Alan Warrick II (D-2).
Taylor, by issuing a public statement late Tuesday disagreeing with the action, in effect signaled her intention to table the consideration and block it from moving forward, which appears to be a vote of confidence in City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her negotiating team. Three of the other four committee members support Sculley and the negotiating team.
“I appreciate my colleagues’ efforts and continued focus on actively pursuing a way forward,” Mayor Taylor said in a statement. “However, with the election of the Police Union President happening in the coming two weeks and the third-party review of fiscal projections coming in this month, I believe we should wait before taking such significant actions.
“During the appropriate window and armed with all the necessary information, the City Council will make a decision on how to move the process forward and will direct the City Manager to implement,” Taylor stated. “The Council and I will continue to work hard to create a clearer path for all parties to come to a collective solution.”
Shortly afterwards, the city manager’s office released a separate statement from Sculley.
“I agree with the Mayor and appreciate her leadership,” Sculley said in her statement. “To be clear, the lawsuit was filed on my recommendation with the concurrence of the City Council. We will continue to act as the Council has directed.”
Tuesday’s developments reflect a growing breach on a once united City Council that voted unanimously in March 2014 to support the city’s negotiating team. Council members also pledged to then-Mayor Julián Castro that they would refrain from any direct contacts with union representatives or engaging in individual posturing on the negotiations.
Castro won that unanimous support as the City sought to negotiate a new contract that would curtail fast-rising health care costs and curb some non-essential perks, such as a legal fund that covers union members’ personal legal expenses and college tuition costs for academic pursuits unrelated to law enforcement.
Council unity on the matter has been steadily eroding since Castro resigned his office in July to accept a position in the Obama administration as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His departure led to the Council election of Taylor as interim mayor to serve out the last 300 days of Castro’s third term, triggering a series of subsequent political developments that have led to multiple changes on the Council.
Collective bargaining talks broke down for a second time late last year as the two sides appeared to reach impasse over contradictory financial projections for their respective proposed health care plans. As both sides appeared to agree to allowing third-party actuaries resolve the disputed financial assumptions, the City filed lawsuit and the police union announced it would not return to the negotiating table unless the lawsuits were withdrawn.
In the Beginning
The City and the unions agreed in March 2014 to a 90-day timetable to negotiate new contracts by the end of June, well in advance of the Sept. 30 expiration date of the five-year contracts. The police and firefighter unions negotiate separate but virtually identical benefits packages.
Negotiating teams for the City and police union have bargained intermittently since then, amid growing acrimony over the City’s efforts to rein in health care costs and eliminate several non-essential perks in the contract. The firefighters union has yet to come to table to start talks.
Castro appointed a 13-member Healthcare and Retirement Benefits Task Force in 2013 to study the situation. The task force’s majority report released in February agreed with Sculley’s warnings that public safety costs had risen to 67% of the City’s $1 billion general fund and would rise to 100% by 2030 if not contained.
What appeared to be a clear fiscal storm looming on the City’s horizon has since deteriorated into the two unions launching aggressive attacks against Sculley and unsuccessfully seeking support in the community and on the Council for Sculley’s firing.
For now, Mayor Taylor’s action Tuesday appears to hold together the City’s position to pursue a legal ruling on the evergreen clause while urging the unions to return to the table.
The move by the five council members on Tuesday came one day after newly installed San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Henry Cisneros held a press conference calling for the two sides to settle their differences at the bargaining table. Given Cisneros’ status as former mayor (1981-89) when the original contracts were negotiated with the unions, his move appeared to be a direct challenge to Sculley and her negotiating team’s strategy, even as he praised her publicly for her leadership, and tilting instead toward the unions.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor calls for and end to personal attacks during the police union contract negotiations in December 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, Jan. 6. 2015.
For more coverage of the police and fire union talks, click here.