Point Austin: Blue Spectre

Evil union plot at City Hall

Point Austin
A spectre is haunting Austin.

It's not exactly the red spectre of Communism that once haunted Europe. It's a deep-blue apparition known as the Austin Police Association, and it's only haunting the Bat Cave on Town Lake, headquarters of the Austin American-Statesman. This week the pith-helmeted defenders of editorial earnestness delivered three alarming screeds on the awesome municipal power of the APA.

First they warned that a City Council proposal to do a feasibility study of merging three small police agencies (park police, airport police, and municipal court marshals) into the APD would bankrupt the city and, worse, constitute "aggrandizing the power of the unions at the expense of taxpayers" ("Council member's plan handcuffs the city to help police union," June 22). Then followed Sunday's encomium to Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle ("Dallas' police chief has the power that Austin's sorely lacks," June 25) for having fired a dozen officers. Since Dallas officers have no effective union, Kunkle doesn't worry about being "second-guessed by outside labor arbitrators" (as required by APD's appeal process).

Finally ("If it's bad for Vermont, is it bad for Austin?" June 27), the Deep Thinkers considered the Supreme Court's striking down Vermont's campaign-finance limits, and saw again the blue shadow, arguing that Austin's low personal-contribution limits (now $300) produce "a multiplier effect ... for the political influence of the Austin Police Association" (apparently, the downtown real estate lobby and other business groups, where the real money is, don't know how to multiply).

By this weekend, I'm expecting the Statesman editors to discover that the APA is responsible for the latest Texas heat wave.

Don't Even Think About It

It's a toss-up which of these meditations is the looniest. Idealizing the Dallas PD, where a grotesquely politicized administration, racial polarization, and outright corruption are endemic, is a reach – that they can fire officers more easily there hardly seems to merit celebration. The Supreme Court's refusal to distinguish money from speech – a distinction most children demanding an ice cream cone can manage – is lamentable, but to lay that egg at the feet of the APA requires a real leap. The prize should go to Thursday's thumb-sucker, where a request to study the feasibility of police consolidation was treated as a done deal and a union-sponsored attempt to rob the taxpayers. A merger "would expand the clout of the already powerful Austin Police Association union," the editors thundered, "and it would drive up the ballooning cost of the public safety budget."

I have no position on police consolidation, although it seems odd that roughly 110 local officers who perform essentially the same functions as more than 1,400 APD officers are recruited, trained, and managed separately, and paid far less than their APD counterparts. It would seem that merging the departments would increase some costs while lowering others – setting aside administrative, organizational, and liability advantages. Let's see what the study says.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell (singled out for abuse), who with Mayor Will Wynn proposed the study, says he's also waiting for the study. He told me, "Potentially, it has a lot of benefits, like you could have uniform command and control ... efficiencies in administrative support, and command structure ... uniform training, consolidated training facilities ... You can think of all these things that might be advantages. I do know there's a pay differential, and it's significant, too. ... So we just asked for a feasibility study, to try to work all these factors into some equation [and] maybe try to make a rational decision about what we want to do, if anything."

Who's in Charge?

Seems reasonable enough – research the issue and decide what to do. To the Statesman, the study is an attempt by Leffingwell (curiously, Wynn gets a pass) to "represent a union instead of the taxpayers." Taking a shot at former firefighters union president Mike Martinez, the paper strains to reiterate its chorus that the all-powerful unions are dictating policy. Setting aside the budgetary sanctimony, this is one more riff in the Statesman's ongoing drum solo against unions. Yet based on their complaints, the editors aren't against consolidation at all. They'd just prefer that the APD merge into the park police, that civil service be abolished, and that every officer get busted down to low-paid, at-will employees. (That's how they do things at Cox Communications.)

Said Leffingwell, "It's no secret that I was a union member. I was a member of the Airline Pilots Association for over 31 years. But this really has nothing to do with unions. This is something I would be looking at if there were no union, there were no civil service, if we were just talking about city employees. It has to do with a basic fairness issue, and efficiencies, and uniformity that we can have, and possibly even some public safety benefits." He added that his "primarily responsibility is to the taxpayers of Austin, and not to any special group, regardless of who it might be – whether it's some union group, or somebody else, some newspaper group, even."

Martinez said he has grown accustomed to the Statesman's anti-union posturing. "This 'progressive-minded' town is not nearly as progressive as they like to think they are when it comes to unionism." He said the daily wants the city to control costs without planning how. "We are under somewhat of a mandate by the Statesman," Martinez said, "to try to find ways to reduce the cost of public safety while not reducing the level of service. How are we supposed to do that if we don't conduct things like a feasibility study, and [know] whether or not we can reduce our expenditures in public safety by some consolidating and elimination of dual roles?"

There is even a more curious backstory to this otherwise unremarkable proposal. On Wednesday morning, I learned that in fact the city staff has already conducted an assessment of the smaller police forces – commissioned by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza last fall and submitted in late March by APD Assistant Chief Rick Coy.

Yet the study wasn't brought up during the June 22 council meeting, and the council was completely in the dark. Didn't it seem worth a mention? Asked about the omission, Garza described the report as a preliminary review for the benefit of three smaller agencies, initially merged last fall. "This is something we will use for information," Garza said, in compiling the feasibility study.

The merger of Austin police forces is not the most burning city issue. On the list of things like budgets and bonds and zoning, police consolidation lies somewhere in the great gray middle. But so far as I can tell on preliminary review, the Coy Report shows no evidence of actually being a sinister attempt by the Blue Spectre of APA to assume complete control of city government. Unless, of course, like everybody else at City Hall, Toby Futrell is now taking orders directly from APA President Mike Sheffield.

The Statesman needs to get on that story, right away. end story

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  • More of the Story

  • The Coy Report

    An assessment of the airport police, park police, and city marshals

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City politics, Austin Police Association, Austin American-Statesman, David Kunkle, Dallas Police Dept., Lee Leffingwell, Will Wynn, Mike Martinez, Rudy Garza, Rick Coy, Toby Futrell

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