Labor contract negotiation between the City of San Antonio and the local police union is slated to start on Feb. 12, and improving the way bad police officers are disciplined is the City’s top goal, officials said Wednesday.

The City’s wish list of reforms includes changing rules surrounding the statute of limitation for conduct violations, expanding what prior violations can be considered when determining punishment, and narrowing the authority third-party arbitrators have in the appeals process.

The renewed push for disciplinary reform comes after a summer of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota but also represents unfinished business from the previous tumultuous contract negotiations that concluded in 2016 when the financial impact of ballooning health care costs took precedence.

“Changes to the current discipline process, [which was] discussed by the City in previous negotiations, is our top priority for this bargaining session,” Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez told City Council during a meeting Wednesday. “Since June of 2020 residents have demanded changes. … This input was loud and clear at the three public safety listening sessions” and at other public input opportunities throughout the year.

The City’s negotiating team will also pursue changes to some internal operations. It wants to exert control over time-off policies, how many hours of training officers undergo, and which positions within the police department should be held by employees who are not uniformed police officers. Such provisions are currently dictated by the contract.

Download the City’s summary of its priorities here. The negotiation meetings will be open to the public, but it’s still unclear if they will be held virtually, in person, or some combination of the two. Those meeting agendas will be posted on the City’s website and recorded. More information can be found on the City’s webpage regarding collective bargaining.

Villagómez will serve as lead negotiator and First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio as lead lawyer. Both have worked on previous union contracts for the City in various roles.

San Antonio Police Officers Association President-elect John “Danny” Diaz, elected by union membership in December, said he will establish a negotiation team after he takes office on Feb. 1.

“We have not had the opportunity to come up with our wish list because I don’t have a team yet,” Diaz told the San Antonio Report after the meeting, which he watched a portion of.

Even without seeing the City’s entire wish list, he said, “Those are all things that we need to discuss at the bargaining table. We are coming to bargain in good faith, and we’ve turned a page. There’s no more Sheryl, there’s no more Mike.”

He referred to former City Manager Sheryl Sculley and outgoing union President Mike Helle, who went toe to toe during the last negotiations.

“We’re willing to sit down and communicate and have an open-door policy,” Diaz said. “We can accomplish more things that way than attacking each other. … We’re open-minded.”

Beyond the changes in cast members, this round of negotiations will prioritize very different issues, City Manager Erik Walsh told reporters after the meeting.

“Health care affected every employee whether they were with us a year or 31 years,” Walsh said. “[This year] we’re talking about a disciplinary process that a majority of the employees really never encounter as they go through their career. … This affects a very slim minority of the department now and in the future. We’re hoping officers see it the same way.”

The 2016 contract ultimately saved the City hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs by giving police officers the ability to choose a plan that had them pay, for the first time, a monthly premium. It also included a 17% pay increase over the five-year term.

But some fired officers have found their way back on the force through technicalities in the disciplinary process or through what many City officials call an unfair arbitration process. These accountability reforms seek to give the chief a better shot at keeping bad cops off the force.

For instance, a provision in the contract says the chief can’t discipline an officer 180 days after a violation. Police Chief William McManus and Villagómez said they’d like to see that rule changed to 180 days after the chief learns about a violation.

During the appeal process, an arbitrator considers whether a violation occurred; if so, the arbitrator can change the punishment that the chief handed down after reviewing a limited scope of previous violations on an officer’s record. The City hopes to narrow the scope of the arbitrator’s authority to simply determining the facts of the case – not change the punishment – and consider the full record of an accused officer.

“Our proposals that we are presenting to you today do not impact the well-being, the wealth, or the safety of our police officers,” Villagómez said. McManus agreed.

In addition to the disciplinary and operational improvements, the City will continue to prioritize the directive from Council to keep public safety spending – which includes police, fire, EMS, and park police – below 66% of its general fund budget.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said the City should consider lowering that threshold as the City recalibrates how it approaches “public safety” away from a gun-and-badge approach to a social services and prevention perspective.

Last summer, Walsh proposed to Council a five-step process to “review foundational issues” within the department, determine the expectations and role of the police department, collect community input, find funding for new mechanisms, and ultimately develop a report – by April this year– that outlines a new model to achieve public safety that goes beyond police and fire departments.

“I’m mildly hopeful,” Nirenberg said, “because everyone seems to be centered on the object of negotiation in being an improved disciplinary process and transparency within our police department, both of which are hampered by provisions within the current [contract].”

Most Council members signaled their support for the priorities. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) was one of them but cautioned his colleagues to manage expectations.

Contracts are, by their very nature, imperfect, Pelaez said. “They are negotiated. They are consensus-based documents. That means it came about because people sat down and budged. … It would be a big mistake for us to walk in there expecting that [Villagómez] and her team are going to walk out with every single one of our items on that wish list on that document in the exact same way that we’re asking for it today.”

Further complicating an already difficult negotiating process is the prospect of voters repealing the state law that allows San Antonio and the police union to negotiate their labor contracts in the first place.

Fix SAPD delivered more than 20,000 signed petitions to San Antonio’s city clerk on Jan. 8 seeking to put a repeal of Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code on the May 1 ballot.

Chapter 174 allows the union’s contract with the City to override hiring, firing, and public record provisions laid out in Chapter 143 (such as the 180-day rule) to be more or less strict. If Chapter 174 is repealed, the City can’t negotiate a contract that includes rules – or possible police reforms – that violate stipulations in Chapter 143.

Fix SAPD also launched a petition to repeal Chapter 143, but its signature threshold is much higher. If Chapter 143 isn’t voted on in May, Martin said Fix SAPD will try to get the item on the November ballot.

However, if the City and police union come to an agreement and sign a contract before Chapter 174 is repealed, that contract would still be valid. Typically, they are five-year terms.

But turning a contract around in five months is a tall order, Diaz said. “Historically it really hasn’t gotten sealed within 18 months.”

The timeline, he added, “that’s something that’s out of my control right now.”

In the meantime, the union has to do a better job of educating the public on why these protections for police officers are important and clarifying how these procedures actually work, he said. For one, it needs to clarify that the disciplinary process deals with conduct violations, not criminal offenses – which are handled by SAPD’s Internal Affairs Unit.

“We don’t protect criminals,” Diaz said. “They don’t belong here; they make the rest of us look bad.”

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