Former City Attorney Michael Bernard talks with SAPOA lead negotiator Ron DeLord during a collective bargaining session in July 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Legal proceedings for the City of San Antonio’s lawsuits challenging the 10-year evergreen clauses in the City’s contracts with local police and firefighter unions will start up again on Dec. 1.

Representatives from the City Attorney’s Office and the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) were scheduled to present their cases during a hearing Tuesday, just as the City and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA) did during a Nov. 10 hearing.

But according to City Attorney Michael Bernard, the City asked to see if State District Judge Martha Tanner, who also presided over the firefighter union hearing, would be willing to preside over the police union/City hearing as well. The City’s lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the evergreen clause, which maintains existing contract terms, including ballooning health care costs, and keeps up longevity and step increases for members until 2024 or until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

When closing the Nov. 10 hearing, Tanner said she would spend at least one week reviewing documents and pleadings based upon the City’s motion for a summary judgment on the evergreen clause. Tanner added, however, that a scheduled vacation would give her more time to review those findings.

“We thought it best because she is familiar with the issues, and there would be more consistency in the rulings,” Bernard said. Tanner opted to hear the police union hearing, and found that Dec. 1 would best fit into her schedule. The hearing will begin at 9:30 a.m.

Bernard said Tanner has the ability to issue any ruling immediately following the Dec. 1 police union hearing, but more likely she would spend time to review findings from that session and spend another week or two deliberating before rendering a decision for either union.

As far as the firefighters’ union is concerned, if Tanner denies the City’s motion, a trial date is expected to be set for some time in 2016 unless she allows for an appeal. If she rules in favor of the City, attorneys for the union are expected to appeal.

In the case of the police union, each side has filed a summary judgment motion ahead of their lawsuit hearing.

“The judge could rule one motion to be right and the other to be wrong, or she could rule both to be wrong. It’s totally her call,” Bernard said.

Whatever the outcome, the lawsuit would go likely go through a lengthy appeals process, said Jeff Coyle, director for the City’s Government and Public Affairs Department.

SAPOA President Mike Helle said waiting a little longer for his union’s turn in court neither hurts nor helps his organization’s case.

“We believe Judge Tanner to be fair and impartial and we look forward to the opportunity to make our case in her court,” he added. Ricky Poole, a local attorney representing the firefighters’ union, was unavailable for comment.

City officials have argued that the unusual longevity of the clause actually discourages union officials to bargain in good faith. Union leaders have said that previous generations of City officials have agreed to the 10-year clause, which they see as protection against having to settle for a bad contract.

The City filed the lawsuit in November 2014, but a hearing was not set until SAPOA broke off talks with the City in late September, breaking 19 months of on-again, off-again contract negotiations. SAFA has not agreed to bargain with the City. The last five-year contract for the fire and police unions expired on Sept. 30, 2014.

At last week’s hearing, much was made about how the the City continues to cover rising health care costs for union members, who are not receiving wage increases after union officials rejected the City’s last wage and benefits offer in September.

According to the existing pact, union members and dependents do not pay monthly premiums and contribute only small co-pays, while the City’s civilian workers pay premiums for themselves and their dependents and pay higher co-pays for physician consults, prescriptions and hospital stays.

Former City Attorney Michael Bernard, who is now on the City’s negotiating team, argued that continuing to cover unscheduled rising health costs after the technical end of a contract with a union was tantamount to an unreasonable and unforeseeable debt to the City and its taxpayers.

City officials have added they have no accurate way to budget health care costs farther into the future because those figures are increasing faster than inflation or growth in the City’s general budget on a year-to-year basis.

Poole, representing the firefighters union Local 624 last week, countered that employees’ health costs still account for a fraction of the City’s budget, and that now local firefighters run the risk of not having a collective bargaining agreement, which could set a negative legal precedent for other Texas cities.

*Top image: Former City Attorney Michael Bernard talks with SAPOA lead negotiator Ron DeLord during a collective bargaining session in July 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Read all the stories on the City and police union negotiations in the Rivard report archive.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.