In 1988, as mayor of San Antonio, Henry Cisneros steered negotiations with the police union that yielded the richest benefits package in Texas.
Now, as chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Cisneros is praising Mayor Ivy Taylor for staring down the police union to rein in those same benefits.
Those two positions — separated by three decades, a political eternity — are not as contradictory as they might seem. It’s just that Cisneros appreciates a good position when he sees one.
“Ivy’s in a very strong position and has a barrel full of political capital,” Cisneros told me, “and she can basically be the person to say, ‘This is the way I want it to be,’ and then use her political skills to get it there.”
That’s exactly the tack Taylor took on Thursday.
In a memo to police union president Mike Helle, Taylor drew a line in the sand on contract negotiations that broke down in March — when the union abruptly left the table to wait for its chosen mayoral candidate, Leticia Van de Putte, to emerge victorious and replace Taylor.
That didn’t happen.
“Time is running out,” Taylor wrote to Helle. “We want to finalize the contract by July 31, 2015. If there is no agreement by this date, it will not be possible to offer a pay increase for officers in (fiscal year) 2015, and the City Council’s direction to the negotiating team from the beginning has been no retroactive pay increases.”
That’s a mayor who knows her leverage.
The election was not kind to the police and fire unions.
Van de Putte’s embrace of their endorsements likely sealed her defeat. Too many voters disliked their stubborn tactics and negative attacks on City Manager Sheryl Sculley and, yes, the mayor.
“She’s got the moral high ground at this point to take it wherever she wishes,” Cisneros said, “and that’s a good place for a mayor to be. And I think she’s got the political capital to muster the votes (on Council) that she needs.”
Mustering votes was supposed to be the police union’s forte. It certainly was back in 1988, when Cisneros needed votes for the Alamodome election.
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier was president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce then.
“It was the Alamodome election,” Krier told me this week. The union “offered to support it, and they wanted support on their contract issue.”
Cisneros does not remember it that way.
“It didn’t happen,” he said. “There was no deal of that nature. The principal thing on my mind was improving the quality and quantity of police officers.”
Thirty years ago, the Police Department was “unbelievably chaotic,” Cisneros said. He recalled “drug-related corruption” and Farrell Tucker, an officer sent undercover to gather evidence against Stephen Smith, a “vigilante” cop who allegedly was planning to assassinate the district attorney and two assistant police chiefs.
Tucker shot and killed Smith. He was indicted on a murder charge and acquitted in a state court in 1987.
The following year, prodded by Cisneros, council approved a $17 million police contract that actually cost nearly $50 million.
It “made our police officers the highest paid in the state,” wrote Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in 1997. “It was also revealed that the projected contributions to the pre-funded medical plan may have created a monstrous unfunded future liability for the city.”
Cisneros defended the contract as necessary at the time.
“That contract enabled us to get some of the best police officers we could get because the pay and benefits attracted the best quality applicants,” he said. “I think there have been four or five contracts since then … There have been plenty of chances if people thought it was egregious to address it.”
That’s what Taylor is trying to do now.
“I remain committed to ensuring that the total public safety budget does not exceed 66 percent of the General Fund budget,” she wrote to Helle. “The City’s numbers and assumptions have been independently verified; we will not spend any more time debating them.”
Cisneros seconded that emotion.
“There’s nothing like an election on which that very issue was so starkly put,” he said. “We need fire and police. We need them strong. We need their morale high. We need to see they’re treated fairly. But we can’t break the bank to do it.”