After suffering a temporary defeat at the hands of former City Manager Spencer Cronk last week, Mayor Kirk Watson and City Council returned yesterday with vengeance.
First, they voted 10-1 to fire Cronk, then they voted 9-2 to advance negotiations over a one-year extension of the police contract – an inevitable decision that Cronk successfully delayed last week, but which ultimately cost him his job.
For more on Cronk’s firing, check our cover story in this week’s issue or online here. As for the police contract vote, CMs supportive of the decision primarily focused on the democracy angle. Come May 6, Austin voters will decide on two ballot propositions that could change the structure of police oversight. One prop is supported by a coalition of progressive and criminal justice organizations and the other is supported by the police union, so that should give you a sense of the underlying differences between the two. But either could have a profound impact on what a meet-and-confer labor agreement with the Austin Police Association (what insiders refer to as “the police contract”) looks like.
But if Council approves a four-year police contract before the May vote – and at least one is widely expected to pass – the will of voters would be preempted. The city would not be able to implement any of the voter-approved oversight provisions included in the Austin Police Oversight Act for at least four years – and in a nightmare scenario for justice advocates, maybe ever, if the ordinance is whittled away by Council action after the two-year freeze on amending it expires.
Beyond the legal framework around oversight the ordinance would establish, or at least encourage through the contract, supporters say it will give city staff, APA, and Council a better idea of how the public feels about police oversight. Are Austin voters ok with the current system, which has been severely disempowered following a successful and meticulous legal campaign waged by APA and their statewide big brother, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)? Or does the Austin electorate want its city government to push against entrenched police union power and go to the mat for a truly progressive system of civilian police oversight?
If the APOA passes, it “would go much farther than any type of police oversight system in Texas and would arguably be one of, if not the toughest, oversight and accountability systems in the nation,” CM Chito Vela said, referring to this aspect of the May vote. “I think we have to check in with the voters before we do anything else,” Vela, who authored the one-year extension resolution, continued. If Austin voters say they “do want to lead the nation in police accountability and oversight … then we have our marching orders and have to get it done.”
That’s all well and good, CM Alison Alter, replied. But let’s be crystal clear with the people of Austin: much of what the APOA calls for in terms of oversight is in violation of state law. It would not be legally enforceable, and even if the powers in the ordinance were granted to the Office of Police Oversight, the APA is all-but-certain to take the city to arbitration. They did it before, and won, so you can bet they’ll try it again – and would probably be successful again.
Alter, who along with CM Mackenzie Kelly voted against Vela’s resolution, did so for primarily this reason. She prefers the position advocated by Cronk and his staff – approve the four-year contract that the city’s Labor Relations Office and APA spent a year negotiating, along with an oversight ordinance written by the city’s legal team that they feel captures as much of the oversight power in the APOA as would be allowed under current law.
Alter is also one of the last two CMs to have lived through the last police contract conflict (CM Leslie Pool being the other one) – a painful process that caused a rupture in the relationship between Council and the law enforcement community that has still not fully recovered. “I remain committed to accountability and oversight,” Alter said before the vote, to explain her position. “Everyone on this dais shares the same goal. Reasonable people may disagree on which path we want to pursue based on the legal risk and legal realities that have been described to us as a body, both publicly and privately.”
“As we discuss a contract that delivers on police accountability,” Alter said, “we must remember that the terms are only real if it is ratified by the APA.”
This claim is not disputed by anyone. A critical component of the APOA’s success is in designing a police contract that would be ratified by both Council and APA members. APA President Thomas Villarreal has been clear that his members will not support a contract that includes many of the APOA oversight provisions – rather than tough accountability, for police officers, these provisions are more like an abridgement of their rights. From their perspective, they already perform the hardest job in the city, and now a bunch of people who don’t know how hard it is want to make it even harder? No, thanks, they say.
So how will APA respond to Council’s clear desire for staff to work out terms on a one-year contract extension? We’ll have to wait and see, Villarreal told the Chronicle yesterday, because he needs to talk with his board members. They’ll gauge the will of their rank-and-file members and take a board vote before deciding how to proceed.
But APA is under no obligation to negotiate with the city over a one-year contract and it seems they won’t. Tony Pohletski with the Statesman reports that the APA has decided against the extension. If some kind of deal is not ratified by APA members and City Council before March 31, APA will fall out of contract, defaulting to the same civil service rules that outline officer pay and working conditions in Texas police departments that have not negotiated meet-and-confer agreements. As a result, officers will lose pay and benefits offered through the contract and the Office of Police Oversight, already weakened, will lose access to other powers.
Officers approaching retirement have even more to lose. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars in accrued paid leave that would just vanish if the union and city fall out of contract. “The APA now threatens to instigate the very outcome they claimed just two days ago would lead to mass retirements, slower 911 response times and increased crime – all because they fear the prospect of facing more oversight,” said Chris Harris, President of Equity Action, in a Feb. 17 press release. Will those veteran members want leadership to continue a game of chicken with city that could end in the loss of a nest egg they may have spent decades nurturing?
Justice advocates and their allies on Council are betting the answer, in the long run, is no – more than APA or city staff have let on, the union stands to lose more by falling out of contract. The current OPO is defanged by the APA’s victory in arbitration, so falling out of contract wouldn’t change much in terms of oversight powers. Plus, advocates say, think back to the 2017 police contract battle. It was painful and protracted, but Council held out in defense of oversight and they eventually won.
The OPO of 2018 was a dream, something that had been long-desired but never realized in Austin. The hope is passage of APOA and new city leadership on Council and in the City Manager’s Office may produce a greater will to push hard on APA in negotiations so that they feel compelled to ratify a contract that includes oversight provisions they detest – so that they protect the financial interests of their members.
Much more will play out in the coming weeks. Council hopes to have a one-year contract on next week’s agenda, Feb. 23, so they can get ahead of what is likely an artificial deadline of Feb. 26 (when APA says cops will line up to begin the retirement process, but no one really knows if that will actually happen). But, as of today, that timeline seems like a stretch. APA and the city haven’t even set meeting dates to begin bargaining over the one-year contract.
Meanwhile, the giant apparatus that is City Hall is focused on something else today – swapping out Spencer Cronk for Jesús Garza as city manager. “We are all focused on the transition and do not have any additional information available” on the police contract negotiations, a city spokesperson told us. We’ll try them again next week.
*Editor’s note Friday, Feb. 17, 11:30am: This story has been updated to include breaking news that the APA will not negotiate a one-year contract extension.
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