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Council to decide on police oversight ordinance

Thursday, September 15, 2022 by Jo Clifton

At the end of a packed agenda today, City Council will face a choice of adopting the Austin Police Oversight Act or calling a May 2023 election on the proposal. At Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Chito Vela and Mayor Steve Adler both revealed that they had signed the petition sponsored by Equity Action and other groups concerned about police misconduct and brutality. The ordinance described in the petition would greatly expand the powers of the Office of Police Oversight and create a community Police Review Commission, as well as improve transparency, making police records available to both the OPO and the commission.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she would support adopting an ordinance as proposed by petitioners. Council Member Leslie Pool said she would not vote for the ordinance, citing legal concerns, as did Council Member Mackenzie Kelly.

Council Member Paige Ellis indicated that she was still wrestling with the question of how to vote. “I’m torn on this one,” she said. “Every city department and all city government benefits from oversight and accountability and transparency.” She said she was not aware of Council adopting any ordinance based solely on a petition. “I do see the benefit of having the voters have their voice heard” on such matters, she said, adding that the vote “gives the Council the backup to say the voters approved it and we are implementing the will of the community. But I do see a lot of this particular petition, so I’m struggling with exactly where I’ll be on Thursday.”

No other Council members weighed in on the issue.

Although Vela supports the oversight ordinance, he argued that it should go on the spring ballot so Austinites could show their support for it. Vela said he thought the ordinance was “an important step toward accountability and oversight in our police department.”

“But I also think having a community vote has a lot of value,” he continued. “This has been a difficult and ongoing issue, police oversight in Austin, and my sense is that it would pass and my hope is that it would pass overwhelmingly. And I think that sends an important signal, really, to everyone – to the police association, to the incoming City Council and to the community at large.”

Vela said it would also be a signal to other communities, such as San Antonio, dealing with similar issues.

Adler did not indicate how he would vote, but outlined another item that Council must consider, whether or not they adopt the ordinance this week. If approved by Council or by voters, the Austin Police Oversight Act would remove oversight from labor negotiations between the city and the police union. The city is currently negotiating with the union on a new contract, with the current contract expiring at the end of September, and one of the areas where the city and the police union disagree is related to oversight and access to personnel records.

Unsurprisingly, the union does not support increasing transparency related to officer investigations. If Council adopts the oversight ordinance, the city attorney must review any proposed agreement between the union and the city to ensure that there is no conflict between the two, with an emphasis on upholding the ordinance.

Adler and others are concerned about what will happen if the labor negotiators do not reach an agreement. In response to a question from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, Adler said his item “deals with a logistical matter. I support increased community oversight, and I congratulate the advocates that got the necessary signatures.” He said it was important to separate police oversight from the other things that are negotiated in the contract between the city and the union.

If the parties do not reach agreement by the end of September, the contract will automatically be extended to March. However, after that there will not be a contract and some officers may decide to retire before that to avoid losing certain benefits provided under the contract, including being paid for accrued sick leave upon retirement. If Council decides to put the police oversight ordinance on the May ballot, Adler’s proposal would direct the city manager to extend benefits and compensation as provided in the current contract through May 31, 2023. Those benefits would include payment of sick leave on separation from the city.

The city clerk’s office reported that 57 people had signed up to speak on the ordinance, while 27 signed up to speak on the proposed May 6 election. These items are expected to come up in the evening after a long day.

City Attorney Anne Morgan explained it would take seven votes to pass either the Austin Police Oversight Act or an election to consider that ordinance on a single reading. If there are merely six votes for either option, Council will have to take the vote on three different days. That is why they are scheduled to meet on Saturday as well as Monday.

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