In May, Austin voters will consider two competing ballot propositions — one circulated by those “reimagine” activists that’d substantially increase the authority of the Office of Police Oversight (OPO), perhaps to an illegitimate level, and the other circulated by pro-police activists and the Austin Police Association that’d essentially cement the current authority of the OPO.
After firing City Manager Spencer Cronk on Wednesday, the council voted 9 to 2 for a proposal directing the city to negotiate a one-year extension of the current labor contract to bide time for a longer-term contract to be negotiated. The only nay votes were Councilmembers Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly. Kirk Watson, the new mayor, voted in favor.
By extension, the decision was a vote against the four-year agreement-in-principle announced last week by Cronk and the APA — a maneuver seen by many as a Hail Mary by the city manager to reverse the building momentum behind his firing after the days-long power outages earlier this month.
The negotiations had broken down back in December, but swiftly concluded this month with an agreement that settled on a 14 percent pay raise and an OPO section to allow the office to be present in interviews alongside the department’s Internal Affairs division.
Through either an aversion to the agreed-upon oversight section or the announcement’s haphazard nature, all but two council members spurned the four-year option in favor of the extension.
“Today, I voted to extend the current one-year contract with police so voters will have the opportunity to voice their position on police accountability and oversight,” Watson said in an email after the vote.
“This proposed police contract, which is being considered in the context of not one, but two ballot propositions related to that contract, should have been finalized weeks ago with time enough before the current contract expires to allow the council, citizens, and stakeholder groups to review, comment, and provide feedback.”
This outcome was not received well among the police union members.
APA President Thomas Villareal, who’d been in the room for the many negotiation meetings with the city, said in his own email, “After much discussion, the council voted 9-2 in favor of the activists and pushed the 1-year contract extension forward.”
While speaking with Watson after the meeting, Villareal wrote, “Mayor Watson very clearly told me that I should never expect a vote to happen on the 4-year deal.”
Stating that an APA board meeting would convene Thursday to gauge its opinion, Villareal said, “I know where I am at in my head in terms of what our next step should be or more importantly, what it shouldn’t be…”
Saying that he expects the situation to deteriorate further, Villareal predicted that the union will “have lawsuits on [its] hands before summer,” seemingly referring to the first ballot proposition’s expected passage and potential contradiction of state law. He also added that the APA likely must seek the assistance of the state legislature.
At that Thursday meeting, the APA board voted unanimously to turn down negotiations with the city on the one-year extension.
That proposition would grant the OPO actual authority to conduct its own investigations into officer misconduct allegations, which would require access to personnel files — something prohibited for anyone outside the department by the Texas Constitution’s Local Government Code Chapter 143.
That chapter of code also protects officers’ employment status by subjecting them to a labor contract rather than serving as at-will employees of the city. Austin adopted the section and would have to amend its charter to drop its application.
Villareal’s comments indicate the APA has little intention of approving the one-year extension, a move that’d leave more time for the city to dig its heels in on a stronger version of the OPO than provided in the now-defunct four-year option.
But the more immediate problem is the potential for mass retirements or resignations by officers at or near retirement age. The Austin Police Department has struggled with attrition in recent years. Currently, it has a staff more than 250 officers short of the authorized level, itself a 150-position reduction after the 2020 $150 million budget cut and redirection.
The number of patrol officers currently on staff is less than the amount authorized by the city in 1995, when Austin had almost half the population it does now.
During the council meeting, multiple testifiers suggested the lack of a labor contract or the adoption and enforcement of the “reimagine” proposition would lead to even more pronounced attrition as officers buy-forward their retirement to meet pension requirements.
At the end of his email, Villareal said, “If this or anything else pushes you to retire or go find another job, we are not going to hold that against you and we wish you the best of luck.”
The May election presents yet another high-profile ballot box fight, a burgeoning theme in Austin as the progressive activist crowd’s envelope-pushing grapples with a growing recoil from certain enclaves within Texas’ bluest city.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the outcome of the Thursday APA meeting.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.