As San Antonio continues to struggle with the need for affordable housing, proponents of Proposition A say it could help the city address the issue, if it is approved by the voters May 1.
Currently, the city charter language restricts bond dollars to “public works,” limiting how the money can be used.
Under Proposition A, that language would be expanded to include “any other public purpose not prohibited by the Texas Constitution,” putting San Antonio in line with every other major Texas city.
Should voters approve the charter amendment, housing affordability projects could be in included in the upcoming 2022-2027 bond program.
Some critical council members previously voiced concerns that the change might allow too much flexibility.
District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, the lone vote against sending the proposal to the voters, said the language of the amendment was “too broad.”
District 9 Councilman John Courage used the phrase “Pandora’s Box” in describing potential consequences, but ultimately voted to send the amendment to voters, saying that he trusts them to make the best decision.
“I have a philosophical difference on what our bond money should be going to,” said Perry, who worried that expanding project possibilities would mean siphoning money away from infrastructure projects.
“Providing housing flexibility will be a significant step forward for our efforts to accommodate the needs of our community,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg previously said.
As the nation reckons with police reform and accountability, Proposition B in San Antonio has been thrust into the spotlight and become the most contentious item in this year’s city election.
Voters will decide on May 1 whether to repeal the right for the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association (SAPOA) to collectively bargain with the City of San Antonio for their labor contract.
The police union has had the right to collective bargaining with the city since 1974 when San Antonio voters adopted the law, also known as Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code.
The law requires that both sides meet at the negotiating table to discuss things such as police officer salaries, benefits and health care. It also provides SAPOA the right to negotiate hirings, firings, promotions and discipline in its labor contract.
Disciplinary action, accountability and police union protection for officers accused or fired for misconduct were the driving factors for a grassroots group called Fix SAPD to get the measure on the ballot. The group collected 20,000 signatures from registered voters in an effort to reform the police department and repeal Chapter 174 in San Antonio.
There have been several mixed messages about the proposition leading up to Election Day.
If passed, SAPOA would not dissolve or lose its ability or pathways to negotiate a new labor contract. The city and police union would likely move to another form of collective bargaining called meet-and-confer.
San Antonio is the only major city in Texas not using meet-and-confer when negotiating labor contracts with its police union. Officers in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth all use this form of collective bargaining.
This system can still bring both sides to the negotiating table, but they would no longer be required to. The police union has to agree to meet-and-confer and petition the city. Then City Council has to approve it or they could let voters decide.
If Prop B passes, San Antonio police officers will still have considerable protections under Chapter 143, which is a state law known as civil service that would still be intact locally.
The phrase “defund the police” has also been a point of contention during this election cycle. SAPOA claims a vote for Prop B is tantamount to voting for defunding San Antonio police — the phrase is on the union’s campaign signs.
KSAT has reported that Prop B would not directly affect SAPD’s budget.
However, SAPOA President Danny Diaz argues that while the measure does not directly defund the department, it would be the ultimate effect. Diaz says doing away with collective bargaining would remove a negotiating tool from the union, which would threaten competitive benefits and wages for officers.
Fix SAPD says the defund label for Prop B is a disingenuous scare tactic.
The activist group supports a meet-and-confer system and points to the city of Austin as an example.
“In Austin, they actually have better pay, better benefits and they have a meet-and-confer system,” said Fix SAPD board member James Dykman during a Prop B debate held by KSAT, San Antonio Report and Bexar Facts. “We can still attract great officers to the city as they do.”
Sgt. Rachel Barnes, a member of SAPOA, said in that debate the passage of Prop B wouldn’t just affect recruitment efforts but dismantle the current contract in place. “If we were to get meet-and-confer, we would start from ground zero trying to build another contract,” Barnes said.
San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said that even if Proposition B is passed, the city would still seek to recruit police officers by keeping their wages and benefits competitive with other large cities.
“We recognize that we need to recruit, retain our best employees,” Segovia said. “I would imagine we would maintain competitive compensation, competitive health program, just like we would for any other city employee.”
For Fix SAPD, issues with discipline and accountability also start with the arbitration process.
Under the current contract, an officer fired by the police chief can have a third-party arbitrator determine whether they should get their job back. The union argues arbitration has rarely given an officer his or her job back while Fix SAPD says 70 percent of all SAPD officers fired get their jobs back.
According to research from the KSAT Defenders and statistics highlighted in the recent episode of KSAT Explains, from 2010 to the summer of 2020, there were 71 police officer terminations with some of those cases still pending.
In 43 cases, the officer appealed their termination and a decision was made whether to put that officer back on the job. Ten of those officers got their jobs back through arbitration.
Twenty were brought back by the police chief, which in some cases happens because it becomes too expensive for the city to uphold an officer’s firing through the arbitration process. This amounts to 69.8% of fired officers who appealed their terminations being brought back to the force from 2010 to summer 2020.
There is also a statute in the current contract which states the police chief can only discipline officers for up to 180 days from the date of a violation. City officials involved in the negotiations and Fix SAPD say they would like to see that changed in the future.
The back-and-forth has led to public confusion about what’s at stake.
Results from a Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report 2021 Q1 Poll released on April 6 show many voters were undecided on passing Proposition B. The poll put support for Prop B at 34% compared to the opposition at 39%. More than a quarter of respondents, 28%, were undecided at the time they were polled.
Fix SAPD ultimately says they are going after collective bargaining because they believe a lot of the issues with police accountability start with the contract.
“You just follow the breadcrumbs and you realize bad contracts lead to poor performance by some of these officers,” said Fix SAPD board member EJ Pinnock. “These contracts are set up by certain laws. In this case, state laws. And Prop B allows us to go ahead and change all of those things.”
With Election Day on May 1, this historic vote will shape the future of collective bargaining for the San Antonio Police Department for years to come.
Find more coverage of the 2021 election here.