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Council delays vote on one-year police contract extension, citing confusion

Not all the action in City Hall today centers on City Council: the Charter Revision Committee is set to recommend a scheme for future elections.
Jeff Heimsath for KUT
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk announced an "agreement in principle" Thursday morning.

After nearly a year of negotiations, with just seven weeks to go until the current police labor contract expires, with city staff and the police union working to finalize a tentative four-year agreement and in the run-up to a local election with two competing ballot measures related to police oversight, Austin City Council is weighing a stopgap.

Council members narrowly voted Thursday to delay a vote directing city staff to pursue a one-year extension of the current contract while simultaneously considering the four-year option, citing confusion about the resolution at hand. They will revisit the issue next week.

Still, the meeting revealed tensions around City Manager Spencer Cronk’s handling of the police contract negotiations and underscored the complexity of securing stronger civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department.

Two options

District 4 Council Member Chito Vela proposed the extension earlier this month, saying it would preserve officers’ pay and benefits while also accounting for the results of the May 6 election.

The ballot will include two petition initiatives, both confusingly called the Austin Police Oversight Act.

The first measure, spearheaded by the local political action committee Equity Austin, would strengthen civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department, going beyond what the city’s bargaining team has been able to achieve with the tentative agreement.

The second measure, proposed by the APA-funded PAC Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, uses the same language as Equity Action’s but would weaken civilian oversight of the police department when compared with the current labor contract.

Cronk announced Thursday morning that the city and the police union had reached a tentative four-year agreement, which he touted as a success in terms of officer pay, civilian oversight and staffing incentives.

At the Council meeting later that day, Vela accused Cronk of sowing confusion, given that members were scheduled to consider Vela’s resolution regarding the contract extension just hours after Cronk’s press conference.

“Your actions over the last 24 hours, trying to ram a four-year contract through Council … only serve to inflame the situation and risk further deterioration of the relationship between the police and the community,” he said at the meeting.

Police reform advocates echoed this sentiment.

“This looks a lot like collusion,” Equity Action treasurer Kathy Mitchell said. “If you agree to move to a one-year deal and you launch a negotiation to make that happen now, we can have an election … and the tentpoles of a real oversight system will be in place for the next long-term contract negotiation.”

Cronk defended his approach and questioned the feasibility of a one-year contract extension, pointing to staff’s cost estimate and the demands it would place on the city’s bargaining team amid a looming deadline.

“I stand by the process that we have used and where we have now gotten to this agreement,” he said.

APA President Thomas Villarreal also balked at the idea of a one-year contract extension.

“The APA is not going to negotiate against ourselves and go negotiate a one-year deal at the same time that we’re going to finish negotiating a four-year deal,” he told Council.

The fight for oversight

Cronk, APD Chief Joseph Chacon and other city leaders said the tentative four-year agreement with APA cemented “second-to-none” oversight provisions. But Vela and police reform advocates pushed back, saying the agreement leaves much to be desired.

Sarah Griffin, the acting labor relations officer, told Council the city’s bargaining team drew inspiration from Equity Action’s Austin Police Oversight Act when establishing its own oversight priorities for the new contract, citing as a shared goal investigatory authority for the city’s Office of Police Oversight in cases of alleged officer misconduct.

“And we have attained that in our tentative agreement,” she said.

But Griffin added that several of the APOA’s provisions – including one that would grant OPO access to officers’ personnel files during investigations – likely would face legal hurdles if approved by voters.

Vela pushed back, saying it was important for Council to pursue more substantial oversight protections, regardless of the perceived barriers, especially in light of ongoing concerns about APD’s use of force, particularly at a series of 2020 protests, which have cost the city nearly $17 million in settlements, as KUT reported in October.

“Sometimes we do have to shake things up,” he said.

Equity Action President Chris Harris also disputed the city’s claims that the tentative agreement delivers on the Austin Police Oversight Act’s goals, citing differences related to anonymous complaints and limits on OPO’s authority.

“What is finished is … very poor,” he said. “I couldn’t disagree more with what the labor relations folks (are saying) as it relates to what’s been achieved in this (tentative agreement) and whether it in any way mirrors the initiative that’s on the ballot in May.”

Harris went further, saying that if Council members approve the tentative agreement rather than a one-year extension, they would thwart the will of the voters and tee up a repeat of the 2017 negotiation process, which resulted in members rejecting a tentative agreement for the first time in city history, citing inadequate oversight provisions, after vocal opposition from residents.

From the Austin Monitor

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