The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: Yo Cops! Defund Our Election

Austin Police Association spends big on scheme to screw up civilian oversight

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 20, 2023, News

I was not sure what I wanted to write about this week until, on press day, our man Austin Sanders lit up the Twitters with the receipts that firm up what we'd tentatively reported a few weeks ago – that Austin's police union was behind a petition drive that has placed a second civilian-oversight ordinance (weaker than the first) before voters in early May. Turns out the Austin Police Association funded its new straw group, Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, to the tune of $287,000 in the last two months of 2022, according to the finance report VOPA turned in this week. The VOPA canvassers turned in their signatures to the city clerk the week before Christmas, after APA President Thomas Villareal confirmed to KXAN that the union was involved. The clerk has yet to validate the petition as of this writing, but given that this is the third time the cops and their right-wing allies have sought to work their wishes through the ballot, I'm going to assume that they've got this down to a science and that validation is a formality.

Grifting in Plain Sight

I've written before about how the City Charter's initiative process can now be deployed at will by stakeholders who have legitimate public policy issues to raise, but also by those who hold non-mainstream views or are exercised about niche matters, since all that's required is having enough money to pay for 25,000 signatures. The first Austin Police Oversight Act was championed by progressive coalition Equity Action, which paid its signature gatherers at Collective Campaigns $181,827.71, according to reports it filed last year. The VOPA "team" paid $288,500 – all the APA money plus a bonus $1,500 from the Corpus Christi cops, go figure – to the nebulous Nasica Tactical for its signatures. As we reported last year, the canvassers for VOPA – some of whom told the Chronicle they were hired by a subcontractor to Nasica called Accelevate – kinda lied to people over and over, telling them the two ordinances are largely the same (which they are, except for the parts that matter most), and doing a good enough job at impersonating Equity Action so as to prompt a cease-and-desist letter from the latter's counsel. But there is no penalty for being shady in the City Charter.

The important thing to remember here is that VOPA, unlike Equity Action (which is also supported by labor unions, among others), got 99.5% of its funding to date from a single source, the APA. So ignore any spin you hear about how these signature gatherers went rogue and you'll have to ask VOPA or Nasica about the consequences for that, because VOPA, for accountability purposes, is the police union – the same police union that is negotiating right now, as I write this, on a new police contract with City Hall, in talks where it may agree to contract provisions which it has already laid the groundwork for invalidating at the ballot box.

Those Bad-Faith Boneheads

The "meet and confer" talks with the APA had been put on ice before the holidays by the city, also over the terms of civilian oversight, which since 1999 has been enabled in Austin by the language of the police contract. The transition from the old Police Monitor system to the current Office of Police Oversight (which lacks a director) initially gave City Hall some independent ability to look under the hood as APD Internal Affairs investigated claims of officer misconduct and as the police chief weighed disciplinary options. But most of that authority was stripped away after the union filed a labor grievance, went to binding arbitration, and won.

Does not City Hall now also have evidence of bad faith on the part of the police union? Can it also invoke the grievance process? I don't know for sure if they can figure out some way to put APA in the penalty box under the terms of the current contract, which expires in March. But this is not going to go over well with the new City Council, I would suspect. (It should be unacceptable to city management, and probably is to the Labor Relations Office negotiators who are actually in the room with APA right now. But City Manager Spencer Cronk, who is close personal friends with the dude who's serving as VOPA's nominal treasurer – a very easy gig, as we have seen – may not be too put out by it.) (See editor's note below.)

One can plausibly argue that even though Kirk Watson won the mayor's race, it was Celia Israel's voters who delivered the goods for the winners of the Council races downballot. In any event, the pro-cop side of this long-running argument is clearly still in the minority on the new Council that has to vote to approve whatever contract emerges from the meet and confer talks; as Sanders reports in this issue, that's likely to be a one-year placeholder deal, much as Council approved last year with the Austin Emergency Medical Services Association, which like APA (but with more justification) asked for wage increases that Cronk does not think the city can afford. I suspect that APA, having fooled around with our elections, is gonna find out that Council sympathy for its position is well within limits.

Editor's note: After publication, we received a response from the city regarding Cronk's position on oversight: “Like many people, the City Manager only became aware of the initiated petition after recent media reports, and is not involved in the campaign. The Manager has made it clear he is committed to establishing and safeguarding police oversight provisions, which our community members expect and deserve, through a combination of City ordinance and a responsible labor agreement, and those efforts continue.”

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