This article has been updated.
A group of activists seeking to repeal a state law that gives the local police union collective bargaining power delivered more than 20,000 signed petitions to San Antonio’s city clerk Friday.
City Clerk Tina Flores’ office will spend the next several weeks working with the Bexar County Elections Department verifying that the signatures belong to voters registered in San Antonio.
“By City Charter, the clerk has 20 business days to verify signatures or advise the petitioners of any deficiencies in meeting the threshold number,” Flores stated in a press release. The 20th day would be Feb. 8.
“If the validated signatures meet the threshold, then the item will be on the February 11, 2021, City Council Agenda,” she stated. “The Council vote to place the item on the May 2021 election ballot is a ministerial act, and the Council has no discretion if the signatures are validated.”
If the 19,337 signatures required are verified, voters will be asked whether they want to repeal Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code. This law allows police officers and firefighters to collectively bargain for their labor contract with the city. Fix SAPD, which collected the signatures alongside partner organizations such as Texas Organizing Project, wants the law repealed to improve accountability for law enforcement.
“Fix SAPD is about getting rid of the barriers that shield bad police officers and protect them from the consequences of their misconduct,” said Ojiyoma Martin, who co-founded the group. “This is about accountability for the police, not getting rid of them.”
San Antonio Police Officers Association officials have said the repeal of Chapter 174 would essentially defund the police and strip officers of critical protections against wrongful accusations of misconduct.
“We believe that a great number of these signatures have been collected fraudulently and under false pretenses,” said outgoing union President Mike Helle, reiterating accusations that Fix SAPD petitioners have been misrepresenting themselves as members of SAPD. “We encourage any citizen who feels like they have been misled or coerced into signing this petition to call the City Clerk at (210) 207-7253 to have their name removed.”
The state law and union does too much to protect bad officers, who can be fired by the chief but rehired through arbitration, Martin said. “Bad police officers are a threat to everyone, including good police officers, and cannot be exempt from responsibility for their actions.”
Fix SAPD organized last summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Fix SAPD also aims to repeal Chapter 143, which details stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower police unions. If repealed, police officers could essentially have the same labor rights as non-uniformed City employees. Not all cities have adopted these state rules, but both can be repealed by a local vote.
But there is a much higher signature threshold for getting that repeal on the ballot: 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the most recent municipal election, or 78,415 in this case.
“We still have quite a bit of work to do” to collect enough signatures for Chapter 143, said Ananda Tomas, deputy director of Fix SAPD. Organizers declined to say how many they lack, but said they have collected more than 40,000 signatures for 143 and 174 combined.
During a press conference earlier this week, Police Chief William McManus said that much-needed reforms in the disciplinary process can be achieved through the labor contract negotiating process, which will begin this year as the current pact expiring Sept. 30.
“I am not opposed to collective bargaining,” McManus said.
He wants changes to the arbitration process and rules surrounding punishment, such as one that says the chief can’t discipline an officer 180 days after a violation. He’d like to see that rule changed to 180 days after he learns about a violation.
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.
If Chapter 143 isn’t voted on in May, Martin said Fix SAPD will try again to get the item on the ballot in the November election.
Disciplinary issues “need to be resolved at the bargaining table,” McManus said.
Contract negotiations between the City and police union are slated to begin this month.
According to a July 2020 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.