Austin officials postponed a vote on the fate of a new labor agreement between the city and Austin Police Association Feb. 9 following extensive debate over two contract approaches, and after setting a May election for competing police oversight measures tying into contract provisions.

After months of back and forth, officals with the city, APA and Austin Police Department gathered Feb. 9 to announce a tentative plan finalized Feb. 8. City Manager Spencer Cronk, APD Chief Joseph Chacon and APA President Thomas Villarreal each took time to share their support for the proposal and its changes to police staffing and oversight policy is could enact.

"This is the product of over a year of work and both sides have worked diligently to arrive at this agreement," Chacon said. "Both the association and the city have considered and weighed all the issues, and we find ourselves with an agreement that, once approved, will both provide significant enhancements to the pay and benefits of the police officer as well as powerful improvements to the police department operations."

City labor negotiators and Austin Police Association representatives had worked to hammer out a new four-year agreement with the local police union since early last year, and ahead of the current contract's expiration in March. The draft four-year contract may be viewed here.

While negotiations over the four-year deal proceeded, City Council members were considering their own plan for an agreement between Austin and the APA. That one-year contract was first proposed last week by District 4 Council Member Chito Vela ahead of the upcoming election.

Contract resolution

Council members did not reach agreement on whether to proceed with a one-year plan formulated by Vela and Mayor Kirk Watson over concerns that action could interfere with the four-year contract option, as well as other issues such as city finances and Austin's police oversight systems.

Cronk had warned council members last week that forging ahead on a one-year contract could weaken police oversight systems and damage the APD's recruitment efforts while short-staffed, while adding millions of dollars to APD's budget needs.

During the Feb. 9 announcement of the four-year contract, he said the plan would both boost recruitment efforts and enact a model police oversight system. And he repeatedly pushed back on council's request for a one-year deal versus the agreement reached by the city and APA.

Villarreal also said that, with a four-year option on the table, APA representatives would not negotiate against themselves for a one-year plan.

Council's discussion during the Feb. 9 meeting centered on some members' request for a one-year contract, Cronk's push for the four-year deal, and what action on either option could mean for police relations going forward. Officials also questioned staff and stakeholders over how some new oversight provisions, either in the proposed contract or on the May ballot, could be implemented—especially given a belief that several items could conflict with state law.

The tangled discussion saw several council and city staff members state their confusion over where deliberations were headed and what the result of any action might be.

Tensions also rose at times between some officials and Cronk, with Vela heatedly questioning the timing of the city's contract announcement just ahead of the impending council vote.

"Obviously, it’s very confusing. And again, I can’t get away from the idea that this was made intentionally difficult and confusing," Vela said of Austin's process.

Cronk and city labor negotiators said the timing of a possible contract announcement before late February had been set well in advance as work on the deal played out.

Members' evening decision to postpone a vote on the contract sets the stage for another in-depth discussion next week, and further review of the finalized four-year deal and council's one-year proposal.

With Cronk's job potentially in jeopardy in the wake of Austin's response to last week's ice storm, Vela also became the first member to publicly call for the city manager to be replaced.

Watson, Vela and council members Alison Alter and Vanessa Fuentes had called last week for an emergency review of Cronk's employment. That evaluation took place in a closed session after the Feb. 9 meeting with no action taken.

Propositions to face off

Austin's May ballot will officially feature two measures both called the "Austin Police Oversight Act," and Vela and many of his colleagues said a long-term contract should not be put in place before voters head to the polls.

The first oversight act, Proposition A, was forwarded by the criminal justice group Equity Action and placed on the ballot last year. The second, Proposition B, was drafted by Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability—a group that received more than 99% of its $288,655 in political donations from the APA—and placed on the ballot Feb. 9 ahead of council's contract discussion.

The proposals each share the same title but would enact differing oversight policies if approved. The VOPA proposition, the second of the proposals, mirrors much of the text from Equity Action's version and changes key items. A comparison can be viewed here.

In calling the May election, council members also edited ballot language to reference Equity Action on Proposition A and VOPA on Proposition B. Mayor Kirk Watson said the change was made to ensure voters do not feel misled at the polls.

Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, one of many residents to report an interaction with a VOPA canvasser falsely identifying the organization and its goal, also said she hopes to avoid further deception during petition campaigns.

"As one of the speakers had mentioned earlier today, there was not a lot of transparency, exactly, in who was behind the petition," she said. "Whether or not people agree or disagree with the petition itself I think transparency is something we should all strive for. So I really hope moving forward that there is transparency in who is supporting ballot measures."

Equity Action leaders and many community members at City Council's Feb. 9 meeting decried what they labeled as a fraudulent oversight measure. Some speakers also pushed back on what they viewed as efforts to circumvent Austin voters by enacting a new police contract without the full contents of either proposition, if approved.

“The reason the community came together to put oversight on the ballot is because Austinites agree: police shouldn’t police themselves,” Rebecca Webber, an Equity Action board member, said in a Feb. 9 statement. “A 4-year contract with oversight provisions designed by the police, perpetuates the status quo, and robs the public of their voice being heard at the polls in May.”

Villarreal also said that, despite the APA's support of a competing ballot measure, the police union welcomes a contract with new oversight provisions.

“The Austin Police Association is not afraid of oversight," he said. "We believe very strongly that the citizens of Austin, the city of Austin itself, the department, our members, are all better off under contract. We worked for almost a year to negotiate to what’s a fair deal for our people and a deal that’s fair for the city, and I think that we got there.”

According to the city, if both propositions end up passing, then the pieces of each that do not conflict with each other or state law would be enacted. After that, the city would work through remaining differences and determine how to implement them.