Flanked by three City Council members, Mayor Ivy Taylor called Monday for an end-of-year cooling off period between the City and the San Antonio police union after an acrimonious breakdown in collective bargaining talks over a new contract. The talks began in March and were expected to conclude by June, but will continue into 2015 with no immediate agreement on the horizon to replace the five-year contract that expired on Sept. 30.
“My colleagues and I want to emphasize that we will continue to refuse to engage in mudslinging and personal attacks that have characterized the union negotiations during the past week, and we have expressed our concerns about these tactics to the unions,” Mayor Taylor said. “Whatever your position on these difficult issues, we can all be civil. No cause justifies vilification of our hardworking and dedicated city staff. The ends do not justify the means.”
Mayor Taylor said she had spoken to Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, to seek his agreement to a “holiday truce,” which she said drew a positive response from Helle.
“As Mayor, today I am asking for a cooling off period or a holiday truce. I’ve spoken to Mike Helle of SAPOA and have asked for the negative advertising to cease,” she said. “On the City side, I am requesting a moratorium on City Council consideration of all issues related to police and fire contracts and benefits, including changes to the police and fire pension fund formulas, until January.”
Mayor Taylor made her remarks at a press conference organized Sunday night following a wave of union attack ads that began after the last bargaining session on Nov. 3 ended with the two sides unable to reconcile conflicting financial costs of their respective health care proposals. The two sides agreed then that the police union negotiating team would hire an actuary to confer with the City’s actuaries. Mayor Taylor announced Monday that a third-party actuary would be hired to independently assess the costs of the respective health care proposals.
Underlying the disagreement over financial projections is the reality that City staff and an Independent Task Force commissioned by then-Mayor Julián Castro concluded that runaway costs of police and fire health care and pension benefits must be contained. The task force report recommended that union members begin paying monthly insurance premiums, office and prescription co-pays, and give up a taxpayer-supported legal fund that pays for the private legal expenses of members who divorce or get charged with criminal offenses.
Frustrated with the lack of progress at the bargaining table with the police union, and the refusal of the firefighters union to even meet, the City filed suit on Nov. 7 to challenge the constitutionality of an “Evergreen Clause” in the expired police and fire contracts that allows the unions to go 10 years with the current terms in place, a disincentive to bargain. Most contractual evergreen clauses are limited to 30 days or more. The lawsuit triggered a new wave of union television and radio attack ads targeting City Manager Sheryl Sculley and a social media campaign, including a Facebook page launched Nov. 9, calling for her removal from office. A union petition drive calling for Sculley’s ouster also is underway.
“We need people to calm down, we don’t need these personal attacks, and what we do need is a rational look at the numbers,” said District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher, who spoke in defense of Taylor. “I have received phone calls and emails from people who were offended by (the union’s televised attack ad), and others who have said, ‘Yes, that’s the truth.’”
District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña responded even more forcefully to the union campaign.
“There are productive ways to move forward, and there are unproductive ways to move forward,” Saldaña said, calling for a renewed focus on “the facts.”
Speaking about the attacks on Sculley, He added, “My personal opinion is that she is doing a great job and we will not be getting rid of our city manager. The city manager and assistant city managers have a very objective job to do, and that’s to look at how the City will look in 10 or 20 years.”
District 5 Councilmember Shirley Gonzales also spoke in support of Mayor Taylor.
“I do commend Mayor Taylor, and appreciate her leadership on this difficult issue,” Gonzales said.
“I appreciate the full support of Mayor Taylor and the City Council,” Sculley said later Monday.
Mayor Taylor opened the press conference by saying she had spent the last 10 days “meeting with my colleagues, with staff, community leaders and representatives of the police union to create a way forward toward a new police and fire contract. Let me stress that these are difficult issues: while we are not facing a financial crisis today, the notion that we can kick the can down the road yet again is dangerous and irresponsible. We cannot delay taking action any longer. We, the City Council, and the mayor, must provide, consider and act on facts, facts that we and the unions understand and agree on.”
The mayor said the presence of only three of the 10 Council members was due in part to the last-minute nature of the press conference and because some officeholders were on an extended Thanksgiving holiday. She did acknowledge that the council is not unanimous on the approach to dealing with the unions. District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, for one, held a Nov. 12 press conference to express his opposition to the City’s legal action to dissolve the evergreen clause. District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina also has taken a more pro-union stance since returning from an extended leave of absence to perform reserve military duty.
“All of us must act to dispel the cloud of mistrust and accusations that hangs over this process,” Taylor said. “This is not about us vs. them – there is only us – the employees and officials and taxpayers that make up the City of San Antonio. We don’t need a political football used to score points; this isn’t Washington D.C. where partisan posturing substitutes for governance.”
A key test now will be whether Helle and the police union end the attack ads, the petition drive and the Facebook campaign, and respond in kind to Taylor’s call for a holiday truce. Union lawyers also were expected to file a response today to the City’s lawsuit, opposing any legal challenge to the evergreen clause and thus putting the issue in the hands of a district court judge. Presumably the request for a declaratory judgement by the City would lead to a court hearing later this month in advance of any January resumption of negotiations.
“When Council convenes in January, we will receive an integrated third-party report on healthcare costs and pension formula and benefits,” Mayor Taylor said. “I am asking the union to be a strong and helpful partner and to help us reach this ambitious goal and timeline.”
SAPOA issued a statement later Monday, which included a statement from Helle:
“SAPOA wants to extend our gratitude to Mayor Taylor for her recommendation to engage a third-party actuary to verify financial figures. It’s a positive step in the right direction. We are also respectful of her request for a ‘truce’ in media outreach. Unfortunately, all police officers and firefighters are faced with a personal attack in the form of a lawsuit filed by the City to strip first responders of their hard-earned collective bargaining rights. Any truce should have included withdrawing the lawsuit and returning to the bargaining table as partners in the City’s future. As Mayor Taylor stated, ‘This is not about us vs. them—there is only us.’ The lawsuit divides us instead of bringing people together. SAPOA reserves the right to engage the community in a professional and fact-based manner going forward.”
The SAPOA statement said union officials welcomed the mayor’s initiative to find a credible third-party actuary to address differences in the two sides’ cost projections for the various proposed plans.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor calls for and end to personal attacks during the police union contract negotiations. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
See all stories related to the current contract negotiations here.