Little Known on When Public Safety Contract Negotiations Will Start

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Two of the city’s three public safety unions are willing to consider a one-year extension of their contracts with the city – but it might not be as simple as giving the go-ahead. Although negotiations for new contracts are set for spring 2017, City Council has said it wants to wait until a new city manager is in place.

A city spokesperson said the process of negotiating is still in its early stages – and it’s still unclear if a one-year extension will go through.

“We’re agreeable to it,” said Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association. Marquardt said that while the union has yet to officially respond to the city’s request for a one-year extension – meaning that negotiations would start in spring 2018 – he anticipates it will in the next few weeks. In the meantime, he said he would consider any negotiations he’d like to have before agreeing to keep the current contract in place for at least another year.

“We’re kind of waiting on some information to see what can be accomplished in this time. Is there anything that needs change for a limited time? And that’s kind of what we’re working through right now,” he said.

Public safety contracts – which include police, fire and EMS – govern wages, discipline and public access to records. (For more on the contract governing the Austin Police Department, read this.)

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said he is also supportive of the extension – but that he’d like to negotiate terms.

“We want to work toward the mayor’s suggestion of a one-year extension, but it depends on what happens at the first day at the table,” Nicks said, adding that he has asked to meet with city officials in January but has yet to hear back.

President of the Austin Police Association, Ken Casaday, did not return several calls for comment.

Per Mayor Steve Adler’s suggestion during budget discussions in the fall, $425,000 that would have paid for negotiators next year was removed from the budget. If the city cannot reach an agreement on a one-year extension with the unions, that money will have to be found.

“We raised the possibility that it would be better if the new city manager, when that city manager came in, was able to negotiate that person’s own long-term contracts with the three public safety associations,” said Adler. “All the associations had indicated at that point that they thought that was an achievable result.”

While the appointment of a new city manager to replace Marc Ott is most likely at least six months out, the city also needs to appoint a new permanent police chief. Although the city has not said that the police union contract would wait for a new chief, former APD Chief Stan Knee said that having a permanent chief in place for negotiations is essential.

“It’s critical that the chief be there to look at the current contract and also determine how that fits where he wants to take the department and, if there are some issues, that those get put on the table,” said Knee.

When both parties are able to make it to the negotiating table, Kathy Mitchell with the Austin Justice Coalition said she would be looking for certain changes to the city’s agreement with the local police union – including an extension of the mandate that an officer be disciplined within 180 days of an incident.

“We would like to see transparency and public accountability occur sooner than later,” said Mitchell. “We understand that we’re in a period of transition, so we’re sympathetic to the desire to have new leadership in place. If the negotiation doesn’t start for another year and then takes yet another year, we’re two years down the road before some of the problems we’ve already identified can be resolved.”

This story was produced as part of KUT’s reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.