City, police union approach one year of negotiations, possibly a deal

The San Antonio Police Officers Association’s last contract expired Sep. 30, 2021; negotiations began Feb. 12, 2021

San Antonio – After 30 sit-downs, the contract negotiations between the City of San Antonio and the union representing San Antonio Police officers are approaching the one-year mark.

But could those talks also be approaching a conclusion - in the form of a new police contract?

The city and the San Antonio Police Officers Association sat down for the first time on Feb. 12, 2021 to hammer out the next contract to cover San Antonio Police officers. The most recent contract expired Sep. 30, 2021, but an evergreen clause keeps its terms in place for up to eight years - giving the city and union plenty of time to talk over a replacement contract.

Progress on that next deal has been slow at times. But now, just a few issues stand between the two sides and a tentative deal.

“If, you know, stars align and rainbows come out... In a perfect world, maybe we’re one or two meetings away,” said SAPOA Treasurer Jason Sanchez on Monday, following the two sides’ 30th meeting.

The city made officer discipline its top priority going into the negotiations. The biggest part of that goal- limiting an arbitrator’s power to reinstate fired police officers - has largely been sorted out.

Other issues remain, though, such as defining the window of time in which the police chief is allowed to discipline an officer.

Under the “180-day rule” currently in place, the police chief and other administrators can only discipline an officer for a civil matter within 180 days of it happening. For possible criminal acts, they have up to 180 days after first learning of the incident.

City officials say this limits the chief’s ability to punish officers if he learns about their misconduct too late.

The city and union had been attempting to craft a system under which the chief would have 180 days from learning of “major misconduct” to discipline the officer for it. However, the two sides couldn’t reach a consensus on how to draw the line between “major” and “minor” misconduct.

So, the city negotiating team proposed a new set of disciplinary guidelines on Monday, which it says are similar to what it has in place with the fire union.

Instead of a dividing line between “major” and “minor” misconduct, the police chief would have 180 days from the point he knew, or should have known, about misconduct to discipline an officer. However, the conduct would also have to have happened within the previous two years.

The city says discipline for criminal conduct, such as domestic violence, wouldn’t be affected by the two-year statute of limitations, even if the officer isn’t officially charged.

The union has not offered a hard stance on that proposal yet.

Another issue the city and union have to hammer out is officer pay.

The city put forward a proposal Monday that would raise officer’s paychecks by nearly 11.5 percent over the course of four years, as well as provide a 2 percent lump sum payment at the start.

The union’s most recent wage proposal would increase officer’s pay by more than 17 percent in the same time frame.

In all, Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, the lead negotiator for the city, said there are roughly five articles of the contract, which still have pending items.

“So, you know, hopefully within a few more meetings, we should be able to agree on a tentative agreement,” she said.

Once the city and union hammer out a deal at the table, it will still need to be passed by the union membership and the city council.

But there are no guarantees on the two sides reaching a deal - even tentatively - anytime soon.

“It just depends on on how much movement everybody makes along the way,” Sanchez said, making sure to couch his more optimistic estimate. “It could be six months. It could be two years. It could be eight years.”

At the very least, the negotiations have been going more smoothly than they did during the last contract. The city’s focus on driving down health care costs at that time put it at loggerheads with both the police and fire unions.

The negotiations -- and lack thereof -- that took place between March 2014 and September 2016, involved a court case over the evergreen clause and mediation.

This time, there’s little to indicate the two sides won’t be able to cut a table at the bargaining table.

Sanchez noted that both the city and union have new leadership this time around.

Mike Helle has stepped down from the helm of SAPOA since the last go-around, replaced by John “Danny” Diaz. On the city side, Erik Walsh has taken over from Sheryl Sculley as city manager.

“The leadership styles are definitely different, and with that different leadership style, you have different opportunities for success,” Sanchez said.

The two sides have not yet set a date for their next bargaining session, though they listed Feb. 11, 14, and 15 as possibilities.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.