Late Sunday night, Mayor Ivy Taylor and her team organized a Monday morning press conference at City Hall to extend an olive branch to the San Antonio Police Officers Association after weeks of intensifying union attacks aimed at City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
Flanked by three of the 10 Council members, Mayor Taylor called for an end to the “mudslinging and personal attacks that have characterized the union negotiations during the past week…” She called on the union and her fellow Council members to agree to a “cooling off period or a holiday truce” for the rest of December and a more cordial return to collective bargaining talks in the new year.
“I have spoken to Mike Helle of SAPOA (the police union president) and have asked for the negative advertising to cease,” Mayor Taylor said.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t. The mayor’s public call for civility seems to be a case of too little, too late. Two days after the press conference, the union campaign demanding Sculley’s ouster continues apace via social media with the “Remove City Manager Sheryl Sculley” Facebook page and petition drive. The content ranges from civil to insulting to repulsive.
A photo posted Tuesday by the unions’ page administrators shows firefighters huddled over a motionless young boy lying on a grass lawn, applying emergency CPR, with an “Overpaid Firefighters” headline. A line above the photo states, “Sheryl Sculley Should Shut Up.” There were six different postings to the page on Tuesday alone, the day after the mayor’s press conference, assuring a steady stream of attack salvos in the news feeds of the page’s 3,790 followers.
Helle released his own statement in response to the mayor’s press conference, saying a truce was not going to happen unless the City withdraws the lawsuit it filed last month seeking to render the 10-year evergreen clause in the union contracts unconstitutional. The clause keeps in place all current benefits and terms for up to a decade after the Sept. 30 expiration of the last contract, which City officials argue is a disincentive for union officials to bargain. The Council and mayor supported the lawsuit, but Sculley alone is being targeted in the wake of its filing.
“We are respectful of her request for a ‘truce’ in media outreach,” Helle said in his Sunday night statement. “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.”
In effect, the holiday truce was dead on arrival.
Mayor Taylor did not say what led to her decision to hold the unscheduled Monday press conference after the Thanksgiving holiday. A letter she sent to Council members attracted only three to join her on stage, and since then, none of the other seven have issued statements reaffirming their own positions or joining Mayor Taylor in her call for a cooling-off period.
Two outside voices entered the conversation in recent days, however, each having an obvious impact. The first was Patti Radle, the inner city anti-poverty advocate and former District 5 Council member (2003-07), who some call the Mother Theresa of San Antonio. Radle sent Mayor Taylor and all 10 Council members a Nov. 25 email that directly challenged their silence in the face of the union attacks against Sculley:
“Dear Mayor and Council,
I am concerned about the recent ads–print and TV–that have attacked the character of our City Manager.
In my observation, this is a woman of extreme dedication. This is the woman who brought this city to an outstanding bond rating. This is the woman who has supported business, the arts, education and, at the same time, supported services for the most vulnerable among us. This is a woman of courage. This is a woman who has been extremely respected by those who do business with our city.
Are you going to stand by and say nothing while these ads make her look like the wicked witch of the City?
Who among you is speaking up publicly against some of the outrageous comments about her intentions, her ethics, and her character?
Thank you to anyone who will speak up or has spoken up publicly,
The email served as a call to conscience, or put another way, shamed Mayor Taylor and her colleagues into acting.
Then on Sunday, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who resigned his office to run for mayor in the May 2015 city elections, had an op-ed piece in the Express-News calling for an independent, third-party audit of the disputed financial assumptions put on the table by the City and the police union as each side proposed significantly different health care plans.
The two sides already had agreed to bring in a third-party actuary to try to resolve the conflicting financial projections, but taken together with Radle’s email, the Sunday op-ed seemed to trigger the decision to hastily put together the mayor’s Monday morning press conference. Media alerts went out at 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
“I am announcing significant progress on our strategy of providing an actuarial review of both the City’s and police union’s healthcare proposals and the potential changes to the formulas and benefits of the police and fire pension fund,” Mayor Taylor said at the press conference. “The union and city team have agreed to have their actuaries validate actual cost of negotiated healthcare.”
A third-party actuary sounds good in principle. There is just one problem with any assumption that the two sides need a third party to assess their financials. The City, which has to pay the costs of any new contract, is exacting in its financial projections; it has to be in order to balance its budget and meet its fiduciary obligations. The union’s health care projections, on the other hand, are built around highly optimistic suppositions of how health care costs will be reduced under its proposed plan.
The City’s numbers are drawn from the annual operating and capital budget assembled by the Office of Management & Budget under Director Maria Villagómez, a certified public accountant. Her team’s financial assumptions, prepared not for union negotiations but for the annual budget process, already have been vetted and reviewed, including by the Health Care and Retirement Task Force, whose report built on those financials and added comparative data from around the state, and then was adopted unanimously by City Council in March.
All along, City staff and City Council have agreed to three basic assumptions: Any new contract must keep public safety spending at 66% of the operating budget; police and firefighters must begin to pay monthly health care premiums to offset the growing cost of their benefits plan to taxpayers, and agree to other reasonable contract modifications; and elected officials agreed not to take any actions or make any concession that could undermine the City’s coveted AAA bond rating.
The unity on those key points now appears to be at risk, especially with Council resignations, interim appointments and some sitting members showing an inclination to soften their positions as elections approach in the spring.
“I want to be absolutely clear here — we are not disrupting the negotiation process. We are not-rebooting,” Taylor said at the press conference. “”I have confidence in the City Manager and in City staff…”
Union officials might conclude otherwise, believing they have successfully driven a wedge between Mayor Taylor and a more pliant and inexperienced City Council, on the one hand, and Sculley, her senior team and the City’s negotiating team, on the other hand.
The police union’s television and radio commercials attacking Sculley seem to be off-air, at least for the moment, and for most Council members who live in an old media world, that might be all they see or hear. The reality, as union officials seem to understand so well, is that far more citizens are reached via social media than mainstream media these days.
That leaves Mayor Taylor and her colleagues once again standing by silently as the unions continue to attack Sculley while working behind the scenes to woo officeholders. The City’s negotiating team, a mix of senior staff and outside attorneys, is spending December watching from the sidelines as the Castro pledge unravels.
*Featured/top image: Screenshot of the “Remove City Manager Sheryl Sculley” Facebook page taken on Dec. 3, 2014.
See all stories related to the current contract negotiations here.