High-powered local attorney Lowell Denton returned from his holiday fishing trip in Cabo San Lucas last Monday to convene a preliminary bargaining session over a city contract with the San Antonio Police Department.
Denton represents the city as the chief negotiator in renewed talks after the City Council voted 8-3 to reject the contract in February. Mayor Ed Garza, angered over a lawsuit filed by more than 60 police officers over payment of overtime and other issues, led the council in the vote to reject the contract.
"I'm getting tired of this," said SAPD patrolman Alejandro "Hurricane" Ortiz as he waited for the bargaining session to begin in a conference room on the 18th floor of the Tower Life Building. "We've had to beg, borrow, get on our knees" every time the police union negotiated a contract with the city. "I'm tired of getting raped."
Police officers faced off against police officers in the negotiations, which with any luck would be concluded before the federal lawsuit against the city goes to trial June 1, 2004.
The No. 1 issue in the negotiations and the lawsuit is overtime pay to officers who arrive 15 minutes early and stay 15 minutes past quitting time to hear briefings and file reports. Officers also want to be paid for time spent cleaning weapons, servicing patrol cars, and caring for police dogs.
It's a complicated situation, but basically SAPD officers want to see a 40-hour work week outlined in a new contract, and the city wants to operate on a 43-hour work week as allowed by federal law. "We resolved those things contractually in Corpus Christi," explained Ronald G. DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas. State law requires a 40-hour work week for cities with a population over 10,000. DeLord, who has previously negotiated contracts for SAPD, said the work week was included in the Corpus Christi police contract.
In August 2002, the city bargained with the police union and reached agreement the following December with 66 percent of SAPOA members ratifying the contract in January 2003. Yet, much to the ire of Mayor Garza, more than 60 officers sued the city in federal court on December 30, 2002 over a "violation of the fair labor standards act" which addresses overtime payments.
The plaintiffs' original petition is a collective and class action "to recover unpaid compensation," for failing to pay overtime to officers who work more than 40 hours per week. It contends that SAPD management requires officers to avoid reporting overtime that is less than 30 minutes per day, which could add up during the work week. The lawsuit also accuses the city of failing to include add-on pay for education incentives and longevity.
The city initially claimed sovereignty and "governmental immunity" in the lawsuit, and contended "that it has paid plaintiffs all sums of money for time worked."
"Your lawsuit will assist the city in correcting the past shortages in your overtime pay by allowing them to right their wrongs without admitting any responsibility for the neglect," wrote Officer Lawrence Doyle wrote in the Centurion, the official magazine of the SAPOA. He also wrote another article about the eight council members who voted to void the contract in February, alleging they used the "excuse that they are concerned about the financial repercussions." He contended that the lawsuit was a formality, and that the city would suffer no financial impact from the lawsuit. "The city has chosen to use the money set aside for the raises you would have received in your contract to offset the $36 million budget deficit caused by the overspending of our city leaders."
The lawsuit also asks the court to force the city to calculate the amount of money that has been underpaid to police officers, since it has access to accounting records of "exact pay rates and hours worked by each plaintiff."
A "180-day rule" is another issue on the bargaining table. In other words, a police officer who is written up for a missing button on his or her uniform should not be dismissed from a job two years later. "The union is saying that at some point those rule violations should fall off."
The union wants the terms of the 180-day rule explicitly laid out in the new contract. The rule does not affect police officers who are convicted of crimes.
The bargaining continues through the week; the new council hopes to vote on a contract by fall. •