The San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association is seeking clarification about the City of San Antonio’s recognition of the recently-passed city charter amendment known as Proposition C.
The fire union and the city are scheduled to meet Tuesday, Feb. 18, for a second round of negotiations after a four-year stalemate. Proposition C, which voters approved in November, allows the fire union to declare impasse in negotiations and request binding arbitration with a mediator.
Union negotiators sent a letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Monday asking if the city planned to uphold the spirit of Prop C if negotiations reach impasse.
The letter stated: “During the course of our discussion regarding proposed ground rules, the City's Chief Negotiator Jeff Londa -- the Houston attorney which the City originally hired to litigate the unsuccessful and extremely costly Evergreen lawsuit -- appeared to question the applicability of Proposition C -- the recently passed arbitration amendment to the City Charter. ... Mr. Londa's comments suggest that the City may be preparing to challenge this arbitration provision in a similar manner to the City- initiated Evergreen litigation that placed the firefighters and City at odds for several years and cost the citizens of San Antonio millions of dollars.”
After the first negotiation session concluded at the union’s headquarters on Feb. 6, Londa told reporters the negotiations were taking place under a state statute.
“Whether you’re under the charter amendment or under the state law, the same thing is going to happen: You’re going to negotiate, and we don’t expect to reach an impasse. We hope we don’t reach an impasse, and it’s the same,” Londa said.
Chapter 174 of Texas Local Government Code outlines the procedures of negotiation between cities and public safety unions.
The contract currently in effect expired at the beginning of 2014. It has been operating under a ten-year evergreen clause that faced a lawsuit that made its way up to the Texas Supreme Court. The Court decided to not hear the case, leaving in place an appeals court ruling that upheld the evergreen clause.
“The current contract has an evergreen clause that the parties negotiated that gets to 2024, and the courts have said that’s a valid clause so … I think there’s an open question as to how the charter amendment meshes with that,” Londa said on Feb. 6.
At a press conference Monday, Union Chief Negotiator Ricky Poole said Londa’s remarks during the negotiation appeared to indicate the city may not consider Prop C legitimate. “And that caused the firefighters a great deal of concern. We are not looking to be at the table to simply go back and fight another frivolous lawsuit.”
The union sent a letter to Nirenberg. In response, Nirenberg in a statement said, “As I have said since Nov. 7, the voters have spoken, and we will honor the will of the voters.”
City Attorney Andy Segovia sent a letter back to the union explaining that arbitration is an available tool if negotiations hit impasse.
“To address the concern raised in your letter, binding arbitration is a tool available under both Chapter 174 and Proposition C. Chapter 174 also allows for mediation. There are obvious differences between the arbitration processes under Chapter 174 and Proposition C. It makes sense that these differences need to be discussed and addressed if arbitration is a path that will be followed. During your press conference you stated that all Local 624 wants is an affirmation that arbitration is an available tool,” Segovia said in the letter. “The Mayor and City recognize that both Local Government Code 174 and Proposition C are available alternatives if the parties reach impasse. Specifically, arbitration remains an option under either Chapter 174 or Proposition C or both.”
Segovia also criticized the union for calling a union press conference before the city had time to review the letter sent to Nirenberg.
The union and city are scheduled to continue negotiations at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Tuesday.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.