AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Association (APA) Board of Directors has unanimously agreed to not enter into negotiations regarding the one-year contract extension the Austin City Council voted on Wednesday.

APA President Thomas Villarreal said APA will allow the police contract to expire March 31 and work off-contract until a long-term deal is reached.

Austin City Council voted 9-2 Wednesday to pursue a one-year extension agreement with the Austin Police Association, as opposed to a four-year agreement “in principle” that had been laid out last week. Council members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voted against the measure.

It came as part of a meeting weighing both APA contract negotiations and the employment of City Manager Spencer Cronk. Prior to the contract vote, council voted 10-1 to fire Cronk, effective Thursday.

The meeting featured public commenters weighing in on multiple sides of the issue. Some called for the need for police oversight and increased accountability through the form of a petition to come before voters in May; others argued the four-year contract put the city’s police force in a stronger, more equitable place.

In explaining her decision against the one-year agreement, Alter shared concerns about whether the city will be able to achieve better oversight a year from now versus what is currently on the table.

She said she wants to see the city codify a legally enforceable oversight system, adding she didn’t believe a one-year extension would achieve all the priorities she wants from a contract.

While Cronk and the APA announced they had come to the four-year labor agreement last week after almost a year of negotiation, that didn’t mean it was a done deal.

The contract with the police association is negotiated largely between union leadership and the city manager, but city council ultimately has to sign off on the contract to make it final.

I’m disappointed but not surprised that the Austin Police Association has chosen not to return to the negotiating table. I hope they remain open to reaching an agreement, and the only way to do so is to come back to the table.

However, because I want to see our police are supported, next week, the City Council will consider an ordinance to serve as a stopgap for the contract until after Austin voters weigh in on two competing police oversight ballot initiatives in May. As elected members of the City Council, we need to respect the people of Austin who empowered us to make this decision and the City Charter that empowers them to petition their government.

With this police contract, we need to get it right in terms of listening to the community and addressing the needs of the officers and must avoid characterizing these issues as “all or nothing” binary choices.

-Mayor Kirk Watson

A look back at police labor negotiations

The city and the police association have stretched negotiations beyond the boundaries of a contract’s end in previous years.

The previous agreement — signed in 2018 — wasn’t made final until roughly a year after the contract before that expired, according to KXAN’s previous reporting.

The issue then was that social activists and the union couldn’t agree on oversight and transparency guidelines. Council ultimately sent the agreement back to the negotiating table in December 2017. The contract wasn’t made final until the end of 2018.

In a news conference in 2018, council said the nearly-yearlong process was not perfect and that they learned important lessons about how to do better next time. Advocates from the Austin Justice Coalition said they wanted to separate the oversight office from the police contract entirely.

“Hopefully in four years we can then have that discussion,” Chas Moore with the AJC told us in 2018.   

Oversight front and center again

Five years later, the discussion about contract negotiations at the city council level continues to center around oversight, this time with the added complication of a May election.

During last week’s meeting, Austin City Council voted to place two propositions on the May ballot relating to police oversight. The items have the same name but aren’t the same, KXAN has previously reported.

One such proposition is backed by social justice advocates, the other traces back to the police association, but that wasn’t clear until KXAN first discovered it. You can read about that in our extensive reporting on the issue.

Council did vote to put the petitions on the ballot with an amendment from Watson requiring the names of the groups that filed the petitions to appear in the ballot language.

Because both petition organizers hit the required number of valid signatures, council’s only legal options are to adopt the petitions or put them on the ballot for voters. They chose the latter.

One-year extension or four-year deal?

The May election’s ability to change how police oversight works is the reason some city council members asked the city manager to negotiate a one-year extension deal with the police association so that the contract doesn’t ultimately negate the decision made by Austin voters in May.

Council Member Chito Vela was particularly vocal about tabling the four-year deal until after the election.

“In nearly every discussion, I raised concerns with the direction of negotiations and the need for a short-term extension, especially after we voted last fall to place the APOA on the ballot. Other members shared concerns in city council meetings. Many of us hoped staff would adjust their negotiation strategy accordingly, but we began preparing this item over five months ago in case the City tried to ram through a contract before the people had their say,” Vela posted on the city council message board Monday night.

Council Member Zohaib Qadri voted for the one-year extension. Before Wednesday’s vote, he urged residents to sign up to testify to “extend the current police contract (Item 1) and to ensure citizen oversight of the police contract.”

Even former Austin City Council Member, now Congressman Greg Casar weighed in on Twitter: “#ATXCouncil has a choice tomorrow: Lock in weaker oversight with a 4-year police contract that cuts out the voters, or support @chitovela3’s 1-year deal that gives voters a say in civil rights & safety.”

Historically most aligned with the police association is Council Member Mackenzie Kelly who requested the police association’s president make remarks before council last week on the one-year contract versus the four.

“I’m meeting with stakeholders and the city yesterday and today about the negotiations and will continue to hear feedback from the community about their thoughts. I’m looking forward to the discussion with my colleagues on Wednesday,” Kelly said.

During last week’s council meeting, City Manager Spencer Cronk responded to Vela’s request for an extension saying the four-year agreement was going to cost the city significantly less money than a one-year deal– that will likely come back up before council Wednesday.

Cronk also addressed Vela’s concerns that the contract in principal came out of left field.

“For many weeks now we have had these dates lined up. We have been briefing council both in executive session and in public. These discussions are public,” Cronk said.

The president of the Austin Police Association last week said they were within “roughly five hours of work” away from getting a four-year deal signed. He said the APA was not willing to negotiate a one-year deal while they also work to finalize a four-year deal.