AUSTIN (KXAN) — Canvassers are currently circulating a petition titled the “Austin Police Oversight Act.”
There’s already an initiative that will be on the May 2023 ballot under the same name.
Both measures have to do with police oversight, but map out different ways to do so.
On Dec. 1, the board president of advocacy group Equity Action said “there are people circulating a petition in our community collecting signatures, and they’re doing so falsely in our name.”
Recordings shared with Equity Action showed canvassers saying they worked for the group when they did not.
Last week, Equity Action’s legal team sent a letter to a man in charge of a grassroots canvasser mobilizing group that Equity Action believed to be behind the new petition.
When we approached canvassers at a shopping center in south Austin, they told us the group behind the petition was the Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability (VOPA). The aforementioned canvasser mobilizing group and the Austin Police Association each pointed us to the same contact with VOPA to discuss the petition.
VOPA is a General Purpose Committee that was formed with the goal of achieving greater civilian oversight of APD, according to the contact we were pointed to. The group said it’s a separate entity from the Austin Police Association (APA), but that APA supports VOPA.
APA President Thomas Villarreal said APA has “been involved in conversations with members of the community regarding police oversight. The APA has agreed to oversight in our contracts for over 20 years. To that point, when VOPA was created, the APA was asked for support and has given it.”
In a statement, VOPA told KXAN the goal of the petition is to “achieve codified civilian oversight for the police.” Over the phone, a VOPA representative said there are likely certain aspects of the Equity Action petition that would contradict state law. Equity Action claims the new petition is a “weaker” version of the original.
“We would welcome an honest debate about the virtue of different approaches,” Harris with Equity Action said. “The issue that we have with this effort is that they’ve given it the same name as ours. “
We asked VOPA about the decision to also name its measure the “Austin Police Oversight Act,” and a representative said “VOPA’s petition is very similar to another ballot measure, and we did not want to confuse voters with different names when the end goal of greater civilian oversight of police is the same.”
KXAN followed up, asking to clarify how this would lessen confusion for voters. We received the following response:
“The critical, ultimate goal of greater civilian oversight of police is the exact same in both measures. Voters who share that goal should support both measures. The language differences are about compliance with local government code and ensuring at least one of these measures will hold up in court if challenged. We want the will of the voters to win out at the ballot and in the legal system.”Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability
According to the City of Austin, the city clerk does not have oversight authority to dig into the canvasser’s action.
The City also said if the VOPA petition is filed — by the proper deadline and with valid signatures — the clerk will process it like any other petition.
Regarding how the petition would look on the ballot, a spokesperson shared the below statement.
“The proposition will be put on the May 2023 ballot if a petition with a sufficient number of valid signatures is timely filed. Since we already have a City of Austin Proposition A, this would likely be listed as City of Austin Proposition B, or whatever letter (C, D, etc.) is appropriate based on whether any other propositions are added to the City’s May 2023 ballot.“City of Austin Spokesperson
You can read the Equity Action petition here.
The VOPA petition is below.
The City spokesperson also said the groups behind the petitions are responsible for providing the captions that accompany the title on the actual ballot.