Most political observers were unsurprised Wednesday by the police union’s endorsement of Mayor Ivy Taylor in the June 10 runoff election against Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8).
Taylor is widely credited by police union and City officials with leading the negotiations that resulted in a new union contract finalized in September 2016 after more than two years of at-times stalled and vitriolic talks.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but I can tell you that the mayor has an open mind,” San Antonio Police Officers Association Mike Helle said.
Three years ago, an endorsement of Taylor by the union would have seemed laughable. But on Wednesday, if anything, some politicos were surprised the endorsement came so late, just six days before early voting begins on May 30.
“This reinforces the fact that public safety is one of the mayor’s highest priorities,” said political consultant Greg Jefferson, who works for Taylor. “It’s easy to forget how ugly that fight was between the City and police union … but she was able to approach union leadership and she worked with them in good faith.
“If it were up to Councilman Nirenberg, we would still be fighting it out in court and wasting a lot of money with the police union.”
If it were up to Nirenberg, Helle told reporters outside City Hall, the councilman would “reopen” the contract and start “slashing” wages and benefits.
“The truth hasn’t worked out so well for Ivy Taylor and her team for this election, so they’ve obviously decided to move in a different direction,” said Nirenberg’s campaign manager Kelton Morgan. “Mike Helle is lying.”
Since the contract is up in four years, Morgan said, “Councilman Nirenberg has said he would like to maintain open discussion and dialogue between the City and the union so that when current contract is up in 2021, we are not at the same impasse that stymied us for the last several years.”
The City’s negotiating team was charged with reducing City spending on health care for uniformed officers and their families and keeping the total General Fund spending on public safety at 66%. The police union’s team argued against any decrease in the City’s health care contribution. Eventually, among other wage increase and term negotiations, they settled on a five-year contract that includes a health care package option that would have some officer dependents pay premiums for the first time. The deal, if the same provisions are contained in the firefighters union contract, would likely increase public safety spending beyond that 66% threshold approved by City Council.
Because the new deal breaches that threshold and only reduces the evergreen clause of the contract by two years, Nirenberg voted against the contract last year.
“Mayor, in bringing us this deal, you have ignored the goals we established for the health of this city – from fiscal responsibility to procedural police reform,” Nirenberg said at the time. “This deal plays politics instead of protecting San Antonio’s long term future.”
In endorsing Taylor, Helle accused Nirenberg of playing politics.
“If the other candidate who’s running for mayor could … quit having a myopic view of what it is to have public safety [he] could probably have a better understanding of what it takes to negotiate that kind of arrangement and deal,” Helle said. “He’s underestimating the community’s relationship with the police department.”
After concerns were voiced by the community, Nirenberg, and Councilman Rey Saldaña, who also voted against the contract, Taylor created the Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations.
A set of recommendations from that council will soon be considered by the new City Council as it develops the 2018 budget, but that group has not yet directly addressed the concerns raised by Saldaña and others about the police contract.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association has yet to begin contract negotiations with the City despite repeated attempts by leadership and a pending lawsuit challenging the current 10-year evergreen clause, which allows most of the current contract’s terms to stay in place for 10 years without a new pact.
That will likely be one of the biggest challenges that the next Council and mayor take on.