“A Bitter Pill”
APD begins life under Chapter 143
As the dust settled over City Council's decision last month to reject the agreed-to terms of a meet-and-confer agreement that its Labor Relations team had spent the past half-year bargaining with the Austin Police Association, it became clear that members hadn't exactly considered the consequences of their decision. What were once distant concerns about a department operating under the state's rigid civil service statute (referred to ominously these days as Chapter 143) became immediately real after the union voted overwhelmingly to reject renegotiation overtures in the week before the holiday break. Then, in the hours leading up to the contract's Dec. 29 expiration, council members spent considerable energy explaining their decision and trying to save face after damaging relationships with the police union and its smarting membership.
CMs Alison Alter, Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston, and Ann Kitchen started that deluge on Dec. 28 with a stern joint-issued statement expressing disappointment in the APA's decision to not extend the recently expired contract for another three months so that the two sides could renegotiate new terms in the spring. Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo followed late afternoon the next day, blaming the negotiation and voting process rather than the union's decision, and promoting the "better choice" of adopting an interim contract – essentially the same terms as those that just expired except that officers would receive "an appropriate pay raise" in exchange for "some transparency and accountability elements."
"We could only approve or reject the proposed police contract," wrote the mayor and pro tem. "The Council could not make a single change to the proposed contract even if by working together we all could have made it better, so we voted to postpone consideration of the contract in hopes of reaching a better, more collaborative outcome that better helps Austin achieve its goals of being a safe city for everyone."
How exactly that would have happened remains unclear. Reached by phone on Monday, APA President Ken Casaday said the mayor's plan couldn't work because the language in the contract only allows for an extension if the two sides are making progress and still bargaining. "They keep on beating me up over this," he said, "and my attorneys are telling me, 'You cannot do this because you're not bargaining and you're not making progress.'"
Any attempt on Casaday's part to violate the contract language could be met with legal action from his membership, something he isn't keen on provoking. And even if an extension were possible, membership would have to approve of any interim deal. Calling Council's Dec. 13 rejection "a bitter pill," Casaday concluded that the time under 143 might serve as a much-needed cooling-off period for everyone involved. "It's too raw right now," he said.
Linder Takes His Shot
Demonstrating that in real time, NAACP President Nelson Linder sat for two interviews with local TV outlets over the holidays, coming out in support of the since-rejected contract and warning of the consequences of going back to the "horse and buggy" era of meet-and-confer. (To which former APD Chief Art Acevedo tweeted that Linder "never gave [APD] a pass when we engaged in unprofessional conduct" and "should be heard loud and clear.") Still, it seemed an odd time for Linder, a longtime advocate of oversight reforms within the department, to reinsert himself into the conversation – though he said his absence during negotiations, and from the Dec. 13 Council meeting specifically, was due to his desire to let new voices take center stage. "This is their day in the sun," he told KVUE, "and they haven't done very well."
Linder told me that he'd met over the summer with Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore and Texas Criminal Justice Coalition coordinator Kathy Mitchell (herself a city gadfly for about as long as Linder) to discuss their goals for reforming the contract. "My goal was to tell them, 'Look, know your history and see where we are,'" he said. "Because you can't dismiss the things we've done in this city with accountability." He said he didn't initially believe that the coalition's ultimate goal would prove a total scrapping of the contract. Had he known, he said, he would have done things differently. "I would've said, 'Absolutely no way.'" He started lobbying Council via email in November, but by then it was too late. Even Linder acknowledged that members were already suffering information overload by then.
On Wednesday, Moore said he met with Linder over the weekend (after Linder spoke out) and believes that the two can move forward together. "We didn't want a contract to be approved if it wasn't something progressive and new," Moore said. While some in the broader coalition advocating for contract reform did want to scrap the contract, Moore's AJC has worked to make changes to it within the process. He believes the tiff with Linder was largely a misunderstanding.
For Flannigan, part of a gaggle of council members primarily concerned with the fiscal implications of sustaining an additional $80 million in compensation increases over the next five years, the focus on transparency and oversight has been misplaced. "In fact, the Council's vote was more about the money," he asserted. "That message has been lost somewhere along the way." He said he's had conversations with constituents and laid out his problem with the contract as it was proposed. The numbers "showed that if we wanted to hire the officers that the Matrix Report says we need ['Measuring Fairness,' Nov. 4, 2016], it would essentially mean maxing out the tax rate every single year for over five years. And it was made pretty clear to me, in my district at least, that that was not going to be acceptable." Flannigan references the specific appetite of his northwest suburban district, particularly sensitive to property crime, and how police funds can be used to stop it. "So when I sit down and talk with these folks and lay out the numbers, they get it." Although oversight and transparency played a role in his decision, the overwhelming factor was those fiscal questions.
And indeed, though much of the Dec. 13 meeting featured testimony on issues pertaining to transparency and oversight, several CMs seized on implications from the five-year General Fund projections in their closing statements, emphasizing the need for solid fiscal management. (Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo only supplied Council with those numbers that day, which resulted in some confusion.) According to the projection, if Council approved the contract, the police budget would grow to $485 million by FY 2021-22, or 39.7% of the General Fund. This year, the department's budget was just over $422 million. Council struggled to reconcile that number with the 144 officers it would like to hire over the next five years, which Van Eenoo said would come at a cumulative price of $61 million.
Casaday expressed frustration with the money talk; the bargaining teams were caught off guard by those arguments well after they could have addressed them in the summer bargaining sessions. "That never was expressed," he said. "City management was thrilled to death with what they had to pay. They said they saved 20 percent more than they thought they were going to have to spend, so they were happy with it, and then we got blindsided by 'there's just not enough money.' City manager and CFO of the city say there's plenty of money; everyone thought it was a good deal, including city management. And then to have them come and flush it down the toilet like that – that was really a big surprise."
And so the city's police force now forges forward under state civil service for the foreseeable and indeterminate future. Adler and Tovo described their worst-case scenario on Friday: "Operating under Chapter 143 would mean we can't use the hiring and promotion procedures we've developed and thus would probably not achieve the diversity we seek in the police force – and toward which Austin has made good strides. Under Chapter 143, we will probably not maintain all the community and civilian oversight of incidents this community has achieved over time and through steady collaboration among community activists, organizational leaders, city staff, and the Police Association."