People sign petitions at a Fix SAPD coalition meeting in September. The group now has more 6,000 signatures on each of the two petitions. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

What started last month as a trickle of signatures aimed at police reforms has become a steady stream, with hundreds of signatures collected per day during early voting.

Fix SAPD volunteers have collected nearly 6,000 signatures each for two petitions that would put the local repeal of two state laws on the May 2021 ballot. The laws are related to bargaining rights for police and fire department employees and internal investigations – repealing them would prevent future contracts between the two public safety unions and the City of San Antonio.

“Our group has been very, very cordial [at the polls] and the fact is that San Antonio wants to sign [these petitions],” Fix SAPD founder Ojiyoma Martin said on Saturday. She formed the group this summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Combined, the two petitions need roughly 100,000 signatures by mid-February to get the items on the ballot.

The chapters detail stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers, as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower police unions. The disciplinary procedures and appeals process has led to some fired cops in San Antonio getting their jobs back. However, these laws also protect police officers from false allegations and political tides in City Hall, police union leaders have said.

The number of signatures collected so far “puts us well on schedule for at least one of these laws,” Martin said. “What we’ve pulled in during the week before is what we’re pulling in daily [during early voting].”

Getting a repeal of Chapter 174 on the ballot requires 20,000 signatures, or 5 percent of the number of voters in the preceding general election, whichever is fewer. In this case, 19,337 signatures will be required.

There is a much higher signature threshold for Chapter 143: 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the most recent municipal election, or 78,415 in this case.

According to a recent nonpartisan Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll, 65 percent of voters surveyed said they would vote to repeal the laws. Less than half (47 percent) of Republicans said they would support repeal compared with 77 percent of Democrats.

Meanwhile, 55 percent of voters surveyed said they approved of the work that the San Antonio Police Officers Association is doing.

During a CityFest panel discussion, SAPOA President Mike Helle said stripping chapters 143 and 174 from the books “would basically send the city into temporary chaos because you need something to fill the void.”

Without a contract, he argues, local police officers will look for jobs elsewhere and the pay and benefits of the ones who stay would be at the mercy of whatever the City feels like offering them, Helle said.

If the petition is successful and voters repeal Chapter 174, Helle said, the aftermath would likely “launch us into another lawsuit” involving the contract’s evergreen clause. The clause keeps most of the terms in place while a new contract is being negotiated.

But Elizabeth Provencio, first assistant city attorney, said a repeal of Chapter 174 would void the evergreen clause.

Helle said the union will fight to keep the evergreen clause in court, which could take years.

Should the laws be repealed in May, the City will have some kind of policy in place to maintain competitive benefits and salaries for police officers after the current contract expires in September, Provencio said. “We are committed to due process rights for our police officers. We are committed to fair processes for our police officers. The hypotheticals that [Helle] outlined are just purely that: hyperbole and hypotheticals.

“The idea that there would be chaos is only fueled by those hypotheticals … and not in any way what we would envision in the event that came to fruition,” she said.

Rather than repealing the local adoption of the state laws’ terms, Helle said he wants to negotiate for stronger disciplinary rules in the next contract.

“There are plenty of good officers that are accused of doing something that they never did and the process is there [in state law and in the contract] to protect them,” he said. Without those protections, police officers are vulnerable to political, “knee-jerk decisions” made by administrators and the elected officials who appoint them.

He said the union would be open to discussing possible changes to rules that give the chief of police just six months to punish police officers, give officers 48 hours to access all evidence against them before they are formally questioned, and prohibit the use of an officer’s complete personnel record to determine punishment.

The contract is “a living and breathing document,” he said, that can evolve to address those issues.

In a Monday press release, SAPOA criticized Fix SAPD’s use of exaggerated statistics on fired cops getting their jobs back and misquoting Chief William McManus’ support for reform to convince voters to sign the petition. McManus has said he is in favor of changing disciplinary terms contract, but not repealing state laws.

Martin and other activists say the police contract hasn’t evolved fast enough. She doesn’t trust that negotiations will get the job done.

While the City brought up disciplinary reform in negotiations for the 2016 contract, no changes resulted. The negotiations centered around health care and pay increases, and by the time activists brought up the need for other changes, City Council was fatigued by the prolonged negotiations, City officials have said.

“We’re seeing a pattern here. History repeats itself,” Martin said.

There’s an appetite for change at the polls, she said Saturday after working out an agreement with Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SS&E) that allows them to gather signatures closer to the entrance at the AT&T Center. The arena has been transformed into a mega voting center this year.

A line forms outside the AT&T Center for early voting. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

On Friday, she and her colleagues had been told by SAPD officers and SS&E staff that they had to conduct their petition drive in a designated area that was much farther away than the 100 feet mandated by state law.

Property owners are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for political speech at poll sites, but the participants cannot stand within 100 feet of any entrance to the building, said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen.

Each election year there are “some dust-ups” at polling locations related to this rule and this year is no exception, Callanen said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org