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New negotiations for police, EMS contracts

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Several City Council members, particularly Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter, sharply criticized city staff during Tuesday’s work session discussion of the Austin Police Association contract, with Flannigan and Alter claiming staff failed to communicate as the contract was being crafted. As a result, they said, by the time they knew what was in the contract it was too late to negotiate changes.

Council unanimously rejected the contract on Dec. 13, after an audience full of police accountability activists urged it to do so. Some Council members said they could not vote for the contract because it didn’t offer enough accountability and transparency, while others said the price was too high.

The old contract with the APA put Austin officers 13.6 percent ahead of the market, and the proposed contract would have meant that the officers would be paid more than 10 percent higher than the market. Although the city has hired a new police monitor, with the death of the contract it has lost civilian oversight.

So now, the Austin Police Department is operating under civil service rules, and although the department is using a promotion list developed under the old contract, next summer the department will have to revert back to civil service rules for promotions unless APA and the city agree to an interim contract.

In December, Council instructed staff to ask APA to return to the negotiating table. However, the association rejected the idea at the time. Interim City Manager Elaine Hart informed Council this week that APA has agreed to further negotiations as soon as the city has a bargaining team ready to participate, but it’s not clear when they might actually sit down.

Deven Desai, who is currently serving as the city’s chief labor relations officer, was involved in the negotiations last year, but he had temporarily taken the position of police monitor. When chief labor relations officer Tom Stribling died suddenly last spring, the city reached out to Larry Watts, who had negotiated for the city in the past, and asked him to take over the negotiations. Watts had to commute from his home near Houston in order to participate.

Desai said city management would like the flexibility in the contract “similar to what we had under the previous contract.” He told Council, “We anticipate that it will take us over a year to overhaul the contract.” He said he needed to know whether Council wants staff to negotiate provisions similar to the previous contract for a short-term contract.

On the other hand, staff has been negotiating with the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association and projected cautious optimism that they would reach an agreement within the next two weeks. The sticking point on that contract is that the union is requesting a 2 percent raise and the city is offering a raise of one-quarter of 1 percent. According to Desai, this amounts to a gap of more than $7 million.

The two sides are set to negotiate again this Friday. Some emergency medical service personnel are still receiving additional stipends as they did under the contract. However, the agreement allowing for those extra payments will expire on Feb. 18, adding extra pressure to the negotiators to reach compromise before the Council meeting on Feb. 15.

Austin-Travis County EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown explained to Council that the agency needs the ability to hire people based on interviews rather than the written test required by civil service rules. That has allowed the department to hire more women and minorities through its intern program, but that expired with the contract.

On the police contract, Flannigan specifically addressed assistant city managers Mark Washington and Rey Arellano. He said they had not been able to meet with him in his office this month.

At the time of the vote in December, Flannigan said, “We gave explicit direction that staff was to work with Council members to figure out how we’re going to move forward. … We have missed such an opportunity over the last couple of weeks.

“I know other Council members have not been able to get meetings. The community does not understand that the problem is a communication gap between us and the staff. I empathize with the police union … and the front-line police officers,” he continued.

He said that the problem cannot be solved “in a public meeting. You have got to come to our offices and talk to us about what we’re trying to do. It will be difficult. Every Council member, the mayor, we all have a different perspective. But that’s true for every policy item under 10-1.

“I continue to be frustrated,” he concluded. “This was the first negotiation under districts, and it was to my mind a complete failure of the staff to understand that this Council is going to operate in a different manner.”

Watts is a seasoned negotiator, having negotiated for both the city and police unions. He seemed surprised that any Council member would complain about not having enough input.

Watts told the Austin Monitor Tuesday, “We met with this Council in executive session more than I’ve met with a Council in any city ever.” He said Council’s disappointment in the process was “more about the fact that we have a large number of new Council members who didn’t understand the process. Also, some, including Alter, had their staff at every single negotiating session.”

Watts said Council members “were not shy about expressing their opinions in executive session,” and that he fielded “more phone calls from their staffs than I’ve ever had in any city that I negotiated in. So, I would attribute the problem to their lack of understanding. … Maybe they didn’t understand that they were going to have 280 people there speaking against it that day, but I don’t know that.”

After an executive session, Mayor Steve Adler told Washington that he wanted him to come to his office to discuss the specifics of negotiating the APA contract. He added that he wanted to make sure that Washington would go to each and every Council office to discuss that, pointing out that Council is not allowed to discuss the fine points of the contracts in executive session.

Council Member Delia Garza added that it is important to have oversight, but that oversight only happens after something bad has happened. She added, “But another key part of having a great police department is having the tools to be able to recruit a great police department, and part of that is paying them well, giving them good benefits and having a process that allows a diverse workforce. So I don’t know where we’re going to end up at the end of this, but I hope that community advocates who are rightfully asking for us to be better and to do better as a police department need to also understand that piece of it too, the important piece the hiring part – and that to me is the most important part.”

Image of Council Member Alter from ATXN.

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