Police Group at Odds Over Property Deal
Should APA board have asked members to decide on a building purchase?
It is no secret that the union representing Austin Police Department officers has long wanted its own home. The Austin Police Association has rented space in a Downtown building that's been the local home to the state's largest police union, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, for more than a decade. It's a convenient cohabitation because of the tight connection between CLEAT and the Austin union. CLEAT, for example, provides legal representation for Austin's officers, and having the two offices just steps away in the same building is certainly a nice bonus.
That said, the APA has for years desired its own space – though where that space should be located and when it should be purchased has long been a matter of debate among members and the union officers. That changed last year, however, when current APA President Wayne Vincent wrote an email to members telling them that the union was on the hunt for property to purchase. "Some of you may have heard that we are currently looking at property in order to provide the membership with a true Union Hall," he wrote in a Feb. 27, 2010, email. "Our vision is a facility which not only houses the APA offices, but provides a service to each and every one of you. In our efforts to find that home, we will be looking at several options." He promised to keep members posted on the board's progress.
Over the course of the next several months, Vincent updated members; by July, he wrote that APA had identified a property of interest in East Austin and that the union was talking with architects about how much it would cost to finish out an existing structure on the property. On Sept. 10, 2010, Vincent wrote that in a meeting the day before, the board of directors voted 17-1 to buy the building, an unfinished structure on just under an acre of land at the end of Wilcab Road, off Highway 183 just south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. According to county property records, the deed was signed a little more than a month later, on Oct. 27, 2010.
While it might seem that the closing represented a leap toward fulfilling a longtime goal, it has instead led to a growing controversy among members – grumbling about the legality of the process that finally leapt into view in an email exchange between Vincent and Lt. Kurt Rothert, head of APD's air unit, starting with a June 21 email from Rothert to the APA board. "I am addressing all of you as I believe there are several possible critical legal issues with the handling of the APA's recent building purchase which you should be aware of," he wrote. "It is my opinion that several areas of our bylaws were violated." Specifically, Rothert was concerned that the move to buy the building did not comport with APA bylaws governing budgets and accounting. The APA budget for 2010 did not include money for a building or land purchase, and the budget would have needed to be amended in order to make the purchase. Under the bylaws, an amendment must first be vetted by the union's treasurer, who is tasked with performing a budget analysis to determine the impact the amendment would have on the overall budget, which must be balanced every year.
Additionally, any excess expenditures must be approved by two-thirds of all APA members. Rothert noted that the bylaws also require the APA to comply with generally accepted accounting principles, which would require a detailed report on how spending the association's savings on the building and "obligating the membership for a large increase in its real estate expense" would affect APA operations. None of that, he asserted, appears to have happened – a circumstance that, if true, would call into question the entire deal to purchase the building. (Indeed, it seems that only one member of the APA's board, union Vice President Mike Bowen, voted against the measure based on the grounds that it should be put to a membership vote. Bowen declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The APA used $400,000 in savings, members told the Chronicle, to put a down payment on the property that would end up costing the union roughly $1.2 million, including build-out to transform the structure from shell to union hall. In an email to the board on Oct. 22, 2010, union treasurer Tim Atkinson wrote that the APA had entered into a 10-year loan at 5.5%; at 10 years the APA would be required to pay off the loan – a balloon payment – or would have to refinance.
Members who spoke to the Chronicle but requested anonymity because of the contentious environment concerning the purchase say they agree with Rothert that the question of committing the association's members to such a large debt over multiple budget cycles should have been put to them directly. Indeed, whether a budget amendment was even prepared seems to be in question. According to the email exchange between Rothert and Vincent, Rothert says he was never provided the budget amendment proposal even though he'd requested it; Vincent counters that it is and has been available for Rothert to inspect. By the end of last week, according to the back-and-forth via email, however, it doesn't appear that Rothert has yet been provided the documents he's asked for. Vincent said the budget amendment process was followed and that the bylaws allow the board to make the decision to enter into a contract to purchase property without taking it to the entire membership. But there appears to be disagreement within the ranks regarding whether the APA's bylaws allow that. (In 2007, the APA spent $150,000 for roughly a third of an acre off I-35 near Braker Lane. That money came out of a reserve fund, did not require the amendment process, and was not put to a member vote.** The APA decided not to build there, Vincent says, because the property is too small for a proper union hall.) Vincent said that taking the deal to the membership for approval would have made it difficult for the union to negotiate a good deal on the property: "How can you do a deal like that with a committee of 1,600?" he asked. Moreover, he says, he made the purchase of property a part of his 2009 campaign for union president; he won with 83% of the vote. "In my mind we had a vote and the membership absolutely 100 percent understood" that the property purchase was part of the plan for his tenure. He says there is not an actual "groundswell" of opposition to the purchase, but rather a small group of former APA officials who are upset they're no longer in power. "If I screwed up, they can run me out of office" in this fall's union elections, he said.
Even if it were within the bylaws to make this latest purchase without a member vote, some argue that it still would have been unethical to do so. There's precedent for a so-called "payline vote," says retired APD Lt. George Vanderhule, who served as the union's president for nearly two years. When the union leadership had an opportunity to buy a building in South Austin in the early Eighties, the board put it to a member vote; it did not pass. That, he says, is what the leadership believed the bylaws required. And if he were in charge today, Vanderhule says, he would have asked the members to decide whether to obligate themselves to spending so much money. Of course, asking the members to decide on a specific property can be tricky. The general thinking is that members would be more inclined to vote for a property that is closer to their home or police beat and that any specific site put up to a membership vote would always be knocked down. But there is a way to give the board flexibility and to get the nod from the membership, suggests Mike Lummus, APA president for five years in the mid-Nineties and now chief of the Lockhart Police Department. (The Chronicle also contacted former APA President Mike Sheffield for comment, but he declined, saying he'd been directed by his current employer, CLEAT, not to make any comments related to the APA.) When he was president, Lummus said, the board took most major issues to the members to decide. He said one way to satisfy the bylaws while maintaining the board's ability to make significant decisions might be to get membership approval for the board to begin its search and to give it the authority to make a decision on location. Getting the approval of more than 1,000 individual members can "take forever to get to a decision," he said. But though he's loath to suggest that Vincent and the current board should have followed his or any other president's lead, he said taking those kinds of matters to the membership works "in the interest of peace and tranquility."**The print edition of this story and a previous online version stated the money for the purchase came out of that year's budget; the money was from a reserve fund, Vincent says.