The police union’s lead negotiator on Friday pressed the City of San Antonio to agree on a new labor contract as soon as next week. The expedited timeline would allow time to ratify a deal before early voting starts for the May 1 election, when voters will decide whether these collective bargaining talks can continue at all.

A Tuesday deal seems unlikely as the two sides remain in a standoff regarding the City’s top reform request: changing the appeals process for fired and suspended cops.

“Our goal would be to have a deal on Tuesday,” the union’s lead negotiator Ron DeLord said. “If we can’t, then we need to have a conversation.”

If a new contract is approved by union membership and City Council – a process that could take weeks – before the election results are certified in mid-May, it will remain valid for its five-year term. That would put the mayor and council members in an awkward position: They would be voting on something that could negate, at least temporarily, the will of voters (if they choose to repeal the state law that grants the union collective bargaining rights).

“I don’t know if there’s … will [on] the Council to vote on something so close to the election,” DeLord said during the meeting, and as Tuesday approaches, the window of opportunity to get a deal signed before early voting gets smaller.

“I’m thinking once the election is started, everybody gets put in awkward situations,” Christopher Lutton, who chairs the union’s contract negotiation committee, told reporters after the meeting. “And that’s what we want to try [to avoid].”

The City expects to bargain in good faith,” as required by state law, for as long as it takes to arrive at a financially balanced contract that considers the community’s and City Council’s demands for reform, said Maria Villagómez, the City’s lead negotiator and deputy city manager.

“Our position has been bargaining in good faith under our existing laws,” Villagómez said. “And we plan to continue to do that. … We have [meeting] dates still until mid-April that we have agreed to, so we’ll continue to work towards that.”

The last scheduled meeting of the 60-day negotiating period falls on April 19, which happens to be the first day of early voting. Negotiations can be extended until the two sides reach an agreement or an impasse. The current police union contract, which expires in September, took more than two years to negotiate. Ultimately, that contract was finalized through court-ordered mediation sessions. Negotiations for the next contract started just five weeks ago.

While the union would prefer to get a deal done quickly, it’s OK with bargaining after the election, DeLord said.

“If we were sitting down [during] normal bargaining, we would have said this will take six to eight months [or] nine months, [and] there will be stops and pauses and [policy reviews],” he said. “We’re kind of skipping past that and trying to speed it up, and I’m OK with that. I’m just saying we just won’t have to make as quick [of] decisions on things because there’s no more time limit [after the election].”

For instance, if the City wants to change the process for performance reviews and pay increases, an extensive study would need to be launched. That’s a process that could start soon but would not be completed by Tuesday.

While the union has come a long way to satisfy the City’s desires to change other disciplinary rules (significant changes to statutes of limitation and opening up officer records to be included in the chief’s and arbitrator’s decisions on punishment), the City has yet to propose a compromise on its demand to change an arbitrator’s power in the appeals process, DeLord noted.

“You haven’t moved an inch,” he said. “You’ve given no light, no opportunity to compromise, nothing. It’s been our way or the highway.”

The City wants an arbitrator to decide only if a conduct violation occurred – not what punishment is appropriate. The police chief and city manager would ultimately make the decision on punishment.

Between 2010 and 2020, police officials fired 71 officers, according to information released by SAPD and the Fourth Court of Appeals in July 2020. Of those, 10 returned to the force by way of arbitration.

The union says the City’s change would allow the chief to fire a worker for almost any reason.

“Humans are not infallible,” said Sgt. Rachel Barnes, a member of the union’s negotiating team, during the meeting. “The chief, being human, has preconceived ideas, biases, and opinions. A neutral, third-party review process protects good officers from excessive discipline and assures that the [ultimate] decision is based in fact.”

The union proposed that the arbitrator should consider how the current chief has disciplined officers for similar offenses in the past, a policy called comparative discipline.

But that is how the system currently operates, said the City’s First Assistant Attorney Liz Provencio. “What we’ve seen with your proposal looks like the status quo.”

To compromise, the union has agreed to allow the chief to show the arbitrator a police officer’s full record to justify the suspension or termination, DeLord said.

The City does not plan on proposing an alternative proposal on Tuesday, but it will provide research to the union that has informed why the City wants the chief to make decisions regarding the severity of punish – not the arbitrator, Villagómez said.

The City also wants to lower the standard of proof used in arbitration hearings from a “preponderance” of evidence, where more than half of the evidence corroborates the verdict/decision, to “substantial.” DeLord considers that to mean the chief only needs a “scintilla,” or tiny trace, of evidence of wrongdoing to fire an officer.

“As many times as Ron is going to say that substantial evidence is a scintilla, it’s not,” Provencio said.

Regardless, DeLord said he doesn’t have a “negative” impression that these issues can’t be worked out.

But there are a “substantial” amount of minor changes on which the City owes the union a response, he added.

“I do think we’ve made significant progress,” Provencio said. In jest, she added, “You said ‘substantial’ so did you mean scintilla, or … ?”

Iris Dimmick

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