This story has been updated.
The City of San Antonio and police union will meet for a second time Friday for a collective bargaining session, but a proposition on the May 1 ballot looms large over the socially distanced conference table.
If approved by voters in May, a repeal of Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code would halt the negotiations that started earlier this month at the Henry B. González Convention Center.
Activists pushing for repeal say that the collective bargaining process is flawed and the resulting contract provisions allow cops fired for misconduct to get back on the force. Union leaders say repeal would result in fewer protections and benefits for police officers that will lead to a reduction of the workforce.
Meanwhile, City officials say they will try to negotiate a deal that satisfies activists’ concerns and maintains competitive benefits for officers regardless of the outcome of ballot Proposition B. If Chapter 174 is repealed, the City has been working on ways to preserve officer benefits achieved through collective bargaining, said Liz Provencio, the City’s lead attorney in negotiations.
“From the inception of the discussion about potential repeal … the City [is] looking into multiple ways to be able to assure our officers that there’s going to be due process, that there’s going to be fairness in terms of in competitive pay,” Provencio said.
Still, the full effects of repealing Chapter 174 remain unclear. San Antonio is the only major city to utilize Chapter 174, which was approved by voters in 1974.
A key factor is the current contract negotiations, said Donna Coltharp, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. If a new contract is signed and approved by City Council before the May 1 election results are certified, it will remain valid for its term length.
Both San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz and SAPD Chief William McManus have said it’s possible to solve the issues of police misconduct and accountability at the bargaining table, negating the need to repeal Chapter 174.
“It’s possible that [Proposition B] will encourage a better agreement,” Coltharp said. “[It’s] an implicit agreement that [they] will come and bargain in good faith on problems that all of the city council members have said they think exists in the collective bargaining agreement.”
But getting a labor deal done in little more than two months would be unprecedented; the last contract, which addressed union members’ ballooning health care costs, took more than two years to finalize.
Meet and confer
If Chapter 174 is repealed, San Antonio could move to a meet-and-confer system that other major Texas cities such as Dallas and Austin currently use to reach an agreement with police employees. While contract negotiation is now required, such a system would make contract negotiation optional for the City.
The union could use at least two different state statutes to activate a meet-and-confer system: one would need voter approval and another would require City Council approval, Provencio said.
If Prop B passes, that would put the City in an odd situation – asking voters or Council if they want labor negotiations after voters have said “don’t go into labor negotiations,” she said.
Under meet and confer, negotiations would essentially function in the same way, but the City would not be legally required to negotiate.
But activists seeking reform would welcome meet-and-confer, said Anada Tomas, deputy director of Fix SAPD, a policing reform group that gathered petition signatures to place Prop B on the ballot.
“There is a way to have a better, more fair contract for San Antonio, that has more accountability, where citizens and the community have more input in what public safety looks like for them, but officers are also still able to advocate for their needs and desires,” Tomas said of meet-and-confer. “… We want a more balanced contract for all parties involved.”
If all other major cities can handle that system, San Antonio can, too, she said.
“[Those cities] have the same or better pay and benefits, including types of incentive pay,” she said. “They generally have more officers per capita, so we will not be losing officers.”
The effort to repeal collective bargaining is rooted in the broader effort to take money away from police departments, Diaz said. “You’re defunding the police … by taking away their ability to bargain for a good contract.”
Proposition B “has nothing to do with defunding the police,” Tomas said. “We’re only focused on accountability and discipline. … We absolutely believe in well-paid officers and having the best of the best on our streets, but we can’t have the best of the best simply by paying them well.”
Reaching a labor agreement with police without the framework of collective bargaining would be further complicated by another state law adopted by San Antonians in 1947: Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code lays out hiring, firing, and public record provisions for police and firefighters. Not all cities have adopted these state rules, and a local repeal vote can undo a city’s adoption of the rules.
Over the years, San Antonio has improved its ability to recruit, test, promote, and train uniformed employees through its collective bargaining agreement because the rules laid out in Chapter 143 proved too restrictive, City officials have said. Chapter 174 allows the union’s contract with the City to override Chapter 143, so if Chapter 174 is repealed, the City can’t negotiate a contract that includes rules or reforms that violate stipulations in Chapter 143.
If an agreement is made between the City and union under meet and confer, those terms could supersede the stipulations in Chapter 143.
“There are a lot of things that can be affected by [repeal of Chapter 174],” Diaz said. “There’s a lot of things in there that help not just the citizens, but the officers in the city, to be able to have a working police department.”
Chapter 143 also contains provisions for an appeals process and prevents public disclosure of certain records, including warnings or written reprimands of police and firefighters. Police reform activists and the City hope to change both the way appeals are handled and disclosure rules.
For instance, Chapter 143 includes a statute-of-limitations provision that prohibits police departments from disciplining officers more than 180 days after an incident has occurred. (The provision also is contained in the current police contract.)
The City’s state legislative agenda includes changes to Chapter 143 that address transparency and the appeals process, and Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) is slated to file legislation to that effect.
Repealing Chapter 174 is just “step one,” Tomas said, noting that Fix SAPD will continue its efforts to repeal Chapter 143, another part of its aim to start the police disciplinary system from scratch. To do that, she said, “you have to take away both laws.”