Let’s start by checking in on Governor Greg Abbott, who we haven’t discussed in a while. Abbott is actually an Austin voter and he took time after voting early on Tuesday April 20 to tell waiting media that he voted for Proposition B. That is the proposed reversal of the Austin City Council’s June 2019 repeal of the homeless camping ban. Christian Flores of CBS Austin was on the scene and asked the Governor what exactly he was doing to “help the people experiencing homelessness” since removing them from the camps could send “them back into hiding,” and make homeless people harder to reach with services. 

Abbott replied that he is working on “multiple strategies.” The only specific example the Governor  cited, however, was: “because of the funding from the most recent package passed by the federal government the state of Texas itself will have access to $133 million to be able to focus on homelessness.” That would be the Joe Biden administration’s coronavirus relief package which passed without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Those no votes included both Texas Senators. And, Abbott doesn’t even have the decency to say Biden’s name. Also, speaking of the federal government, Abbott and Texas Republicans have for over a decade refused Medicaid expansion which could provide medical insurance to more than a million uninsured, low income Texans. The federal government, I mean the Biden administration, is currently putting financial pressure on Texas in an effort to get the state to join Medicaid expansion. 

Governor Greg Abbott Address the State on Freeze Disaster, February 24, 2021
Governor Greg Abbott

This is at least the second time recently that reporter Flores put a top state official on the spot. He recently angered Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. That occurred April 6 when Patrick assembled the Capitol press and attacked Texas Democrats, in particular Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, for labeling proposals in the Texas Legislature that make it harder to vote as “voter suppression” bills. According to the Houston Chronicle Patrick called Hidalgo, Turner and others a “nest of liars.”

It was after this speech that Flores brought up Patrick’s promise last year — made after Donald Trump’s loss to Biden — to pay $1 million to anyone who provided evidence of voter fraud. Since then voter fraud charges have been filed against three Trump supporters in Pennsylvania and two of them have reportedly admitted their guilt. The colorful Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has been trying to collect $3 million from Patrick on behalf of Pennsylvania. As the Houston Chronicle put it, Fetterman “relentlessly trolls” Patrick, especially on Twitter, trying to collect the money. After Patrick finished his April 6 tirade, Flores managed to work in a few questions, including one on whether Patrick planned to pay Fetterman. That went like this, according to a transcript from CBS Austin:

Flores: “Back on the topic of election security, if all three cases in Pennsylvania lead to convictions, do you plan on giving the Lieutenant Governor his award money?”

Patrick: “You know, just go, don’t ask me a stupid question. I didn’t come here to take stupid questions from the media. It’s ridiculous.”

Flores: “Two of the three (of those charged) have admitted…”

Patrick: “It’s ridiculous. I just answered your question.”

Flores: “Two of the three have admitted to voter fraud there.”

Patrick: “I answered your question, okay.”

At least Governor Abbott handled Flores’ questioning more calmly than Patrick, but they’re still both, as Patrick might say, ridiculous.

Meanwhile, back at Austin City Hall it sometimes seems like many of the players there are intent on helping Abbott and other Republicans paint their picture of Austin as a bastion of bizarre left wing extremism. Consider the presentation to Council this week from the Austin City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. That task force was convened last summer by the City Manager’s Office to help in the City’s effort to “reimagine public safety.” Before going further, let’s note that reimagining public safety is a very important and necessary effort in our country and our city — as we have discussed in the Independent many times. It just seems that there must be more of a middle ground, a better chance for a successful path to reform and justice than what the task force recommends. Their recommendations include: “no more cadet classes,” phasing out “all use of deadly weapons,” and the City paying reimagining public safety activists for their activism.  

The task force recommendations include: “no more cadet classes,” phasing out “all use of deadly weapons,” and the City paying reimagining public safety activists for their activism.  

The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force is the group which was referenced repeatedly by speakers, and some Council Members, when the Council on March 25 discussed whether to move forward on a new cadet class, after more than a year without one. Most speakers who called in to the March 25 Council meeting did not want the Council to vote on a cadet class until the task force delivered its recommendations on April 20 — although as one dissident task force member pointed out, the task force did not have a working group dedicated to the training academy and thus was not working on training.

A Council majority tried to carve out a middle ground. They voted to let the City Manager move forward with a “blueprint” on preparing for a new cadet class, but required him to come back with a report on compliance with an array of consultant recommendations before Council will fund the class. The Council specifically said they would not decide until they received the task force recommendations. That proposal passed with eight votes. Council Member Greg Casar voted no while Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison and and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes both abstained. 

The task force presented its recommendations to Council on Tuesday April 20 with two somewhat contradictory recommendations on cadet classes. Those recommendations came from two different working groups within the task force, but were both included in the overall recommendations that the the task force sent to Council. Neither recommendation, however, would result in a cadet class anytime in the foreseeable future. The “Long Term Vision and Recommendations” working group recommended: “No more cadet classes. Training officers in this model will inevitably create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regardless of what the training looks like.” The term “this model” refers to the “model of patrol policing.” The work team wrote, “Long term, we must divest from this entire racist, classist model of patrol policing.”

Screen shot from Reimagining Public Safety Task Force presentation to Council (4-20-21). Task Force Member David Johnson presents recommendations of the Long Term Vision and Recommendations Working Group. (Screen shot at top of page shows one list of areas the task force recommends to “Defund.”)

The “Police Staffing: Patrol and Criminal Investigations Working Group,” recommended: “There should be a community full-curriculum review of the cadet academy.” The term “full-curriculum review” was not defined, but it likely means review by the task force or some similar group. Also, the call for a community review seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that the group did not look at the cadet academy in any detail.

The two recommendations, however, seem to contradict each other in that the first calls for “no more cadet classes” while the other opposes cadet classes at least until a “community full-curriculum review” is completed. The first recommendation could also be read as meaning no cadet class as long as the patrol model is still in place, and maybe one after that. As already noted, however, neither recommendation supports a new cadet class anytime soon, if ever. 

The Independent emailed the two task force co-chairs — Paula X. Rojas and Brion Oaks (also the City of Austin Equity Officer) — Thursday morning and asked for a clarification on the two semi-conflicting recommendations; along with some other questions. Rojas did not respond. A City PIO representative called on behalf of Oaks, but said he could not provide answers before press time. 

Task force members signing a letter to Council called for an “ongoing community process. . . that includes compensation for the labor of regularly involved community members. . .”

More light was shed on the task force’s views on cadet classes in a letter to the Council signed by 14 members of the task force. Signers included the leaders of both working groups who made recommendations on cadet classes. The first thing of note is that the signers did not accept the Council majority’s framing of the March 25 vote as having put off the decision on a cadet class until after the task force made it recommendations — although a final vote still remains.  Instead the task force members characterized that action as “voting to prematurely restart the scandal-plagued Austin Police Training Academy. . . against the direct recommendation of the RPSTF (task force) and in advance of the release of our official report.” By doing so, continued the signers, the Council “put community members vulnerable to police violence in peril . . . demonstrated their disdain for the RPSTF and their lack of commitment to the concept of reimagining public safety,” and “wasted the time and energy of many committed community members, advocates and city staff.”

The writers ended with a list of demands for an “ongoing community process to reimagine public safety beyond this year’s.” That process, they continued, must be one “that includes compensation for the labor of regularly involved community members as well as individuals harmed by public safety practices and willing to give input regarding their lived experience.” Yes, that means the City paying activists for their time.

It’s unclear when the Council will take up the task force recommendations or a budget vote on a new cadet class. The Manager’s goal for a cadet class is June 7. So the task force recommendations would likely to be taken up at least initially before then. The big question is whether Council will go straight down the line with activists as they largely did on the budget last summer, or whether they will adopt parts of the recommendations and forge compromise on others, i.e. govern.

In closing a reminder that early voting is still underway through Tuesday April 27, for the May 1 election. That includes the referendum on whether to switch to strong mayor. By the way KXAN hosted an online forum Monday April 19 during which reporters Will Dupree and John Engel posed questions to representatives of each side. Then a media panel followed featuring Jen Rice of Houston Public Media, and the author of this article. Here’s a link for anyone who wants to tune in.


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