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Photo by John Flynn
Friday, March 26, 2021 by Sean Saldaña
Proposition C explained
Last month, City Council approved the language for seven ballot propositions Austin residents will cast votes for or against on May 1. Among them was Proposition C, an initiative that would transfer oversight power of the Office of Police Oversight from the city manager to City Council.
The ballot language reads as follows:
Shall the city charter be amended to allow for a Director of Police Oversight to be appointed or removed in a manner established by City Council ordinance, with duties that include the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing?
The important thing to note about the ballot proposition is that it does not implement any immediate changes to the Office of Police Oversight. Whether or not the initiative passes, the office’s staff, scope of work and responsibilities will remain intact for the time being.
The change the proposition aims to make revolves around the city charter, the set of codes and ordinances that govern nearly every aspect of life in Austin.
Under the current city charter, the director of Police Oversight is appointed by and reports to the city manager, Spencer Cronk. This ordinance would take that power from the city manager and give it to City Council.
This push to restructure the arrangement has been led by Council Member Greg Casar. His motivation: accountability.
In a Feb. 8 press release, Casar said that “in other cities, the Office of Police Oversight is independently appointed or is overseen by a civilian board, but right now our options as a city are limited. By making this proposed charter change in May, the community and City Council have the opportunity to create more transparency and accountability of our police department in the future.”
The release points out New Orleans and Seattle as examples of cities that have “independent oversight that could be modeled in Austin.”
According to the memo, New Orleans has an Office of the Independent Police Monitor, which is overseen by an independent board of community members, while Seattle has an Inspector General for Public Safety that answers to City Council.
Should Proposition C pass in May, Article V of the city charter will add a new section to read as follows:
Notwithstanding any other provision of this Charter, the city council may provide for a director of police oversight who shall be appointed and may be removed as provided by ordinance. The director shall have such duties, responsibilities, and staff as provided by ordinance, including the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing.
On the whole, the ballot initiative received broad support from other Council members. In February, they voted nearly unanimously to advance the proposition to a citywide vote. The only Council member who voted against it was newly elected Mackenzie Kelly.
Speaking at the Feb 9. special called City Council meeting, Kelly said, “I think this is a great idea in theory … but I have a very strong opposition to (possibly amending the charter) so quickly without insight and collaboration in the community.”
Concerns around the proposition’s relatively short planning timeline have not been lost on Casar, but according to him, the urgency to put these changes to a vote comes from a state law that only allows Texas cities to alter their charters every two years.
In a City Council Message Board post from last month, Casar wrote that “in most cases, I would prefer more time for community conversation before putting a charter amendment on the ballot. Since the citizen petitions have triggered a charter election, we may not have the opportunity to alter the charter again for two years, given state law. I don’t want to let the moment pass us by.”
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