Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Why a citizen's charter initiative?

Organizations have sought a more open city government for years to no avail. The primary example of this is the ACLU's fight over police misconduct records. The ACLU and other local organizations participated in months-long negotiations with the police association and the city over police records, finally accepting a very narrow opening that allowed only complainants to see the investigation file on their own complaint. The city and the police association then turned around and eliminated this carefully crafted compromise in favor of additional secrecy—criminal penalties for civilian review board members who reveal anything they learn.

The people of Austin have been told that under no circumstances will the police association agree to any transparency provisions through the current, secret meet and confer process. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "meet and confer" is the name given to the negotiations between the police union and the city. These negotiations result in the contract that governs many aspects of how APD is run by setting the terms that the officers, as a union, agree to as part of their employment. It includes items far beyond just officer pay, and currently includes many provisions ensuring secrecy.

City officials should be able to simply make transparency a non-negotiable item on the city's side of the table, but they will not do so. Police misconduct records are key to an accountable force and opening up these records is no more than what is already the norm for most departments. As far as the negotiations themselves, open meet and confer negotiations are now required by state law for cities starting a new meet-and-confer program. If we don't bring Austin in line with the rest of Texas, we will be an anachronism that allows for unnecessary secrecy.

In addition to allowing more transparency, opening up the meet and confer process will bring more balance to our budget. The last meet and confer process resulted in the city tying up all future sales and property tax revenue without any public discussion. This will leave only city utility revenue in the future to pay for other city services, such as libraries and parks. The city's own budget summary states that the salaries negotiated during the last (secret) meet and confer "are already out of line in comparison to other major Texas cities – on average our police officers’ salaries are between 18 percent and 33 percent higher than the average salaries of their counterparts in the major Texas cities." Given the budget dollars involved in meet and confer and the impact on all other aspects of Austin’s budget, we desperately need an open meet and confer process.

These are reasonable changes to the police process, but there is no alternative to a ballot initiative to getting them changed in Austin—not because they lack public support but because of a single special interest that exerts too much power over city management and council.

The same holds true for economic development agreements. Companies will not agree to public negotiations if it's left up to them. They have no incentive. Long experience has shown that city staff cannot be counted on to bring the public in early in the process, although they have some discretion. Instead, the City typically announces a done-deal and tries to move it quickly before public debate becomes serious--as they've tried to do with the Guerrero / Green Water treatment deal. State laws protecting third party information (company information) allow for a great deal of secrecy and cannot be overturned by an ordinance or a charter amendment.

Only a clear policy at the city that companies must negotiate in the open to apply for tax breaks can get us a truly transparent process. Because of powerful special interests wanting secret giveaways, this couldn't come to fruition except through a ballot initiative, and couldn't be a permanent part of Austin life unless it was in the charter.


At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but couldn't you do this as a Citizen's Ordinance, just like the SOS Ordinance? These are clearly written as ordinances, not charter amendments, and we have the right as citizens to petition to put our own ordinances before the voters by gathering the signatures of 10% of registered voters, which is what the SOS Coalition (actually a different group than the SOS Alliance) did in 1991/92.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger JS Hatcher said...

Many of the reforms, as I explain, are important and need to be in the charter. Though the amendment is comprehensive, it is not "clearly written as ordinances". Ordinances covering the same subjects as this amendment would be far more detailed -- that is why the Council will need to pass a set of ordinances to interpret and implement the charter amendments.

Have you read all the different sections of the charter, especially Article 12? It is pretty comprehensive and detailed in parts. The question is not "couldn't you do this as a Citizen's Ordinance", but rather "Is the Charter the proper place to insure citizen access?" The answer to that question is yes.


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