Misleading police oversight petition campaign continues despite advocates' efforts to quash it

Members of Equity Action, a criminal justice-focused non-profit, say a "dubious at best" petition campaign has continued weeks after their attorneys sent a cease and desist letter to a consulting firm associated with the effort. 

Wednesday, Dec. 14, District 8 Austin City Council Member Paige Ellis said she was approached by a canvasser who claimed he was with Equity Action. He asked her to sign a petition he said was for the "Austin Police Oversight Act." 

Members of Equity Action say the group is done collecting signatures for their petition -- also titled "The Austin Police Oversight Act." They have already successfully placed the initiative on the May 2023 ballot. 

Both petitions architect models for police oversight. However, police reform advocates with Equity Action believe the second petition would result in weaker oversight. 

On Dec. 15, Ellis approached the same canvasser again and recorded the interaction. He asked her why she was recording and told her he was with VOPA -- Voters for Police Accountability and Oversight. There is little information publicly available on the group. 

On Dec. 4 attorneys for Equity Action sent a letter to Nasica Tactical Executive Director John Egan. The website states it is a "nationally-renowned grassroots consulting firm with highly skilled standing teams of voter contact professionals." The petition fact sheet identified Egan as the contact for questions. 

"We want them to stop posing as us. But we’ve heard that that continues in the field." said Kathy Mitchell of Equity Action. 

Attorneys wrote that they have been unable to identify contact information for "the purported sponsor of the petition drive… VOPA." They asked Egan to pass the communication on "to the responsible parties at [VOPA]."

The letter indicates future legal action is possible. It also states a criminal complaint was filed with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. In a statement Thursday a TCDAO spokesperson confirmed their Public Integrity and Complex Crimes Unit is reviewing the complaint. 

"I have read some articles about who might be behind this and I think this is a really interesting time because we’re trying to rebuild trust with the police department and making sure that the folks that are out there every day know that we are listening. That we’re willing to work with them. But, it could be someone that is representing some of those employees that is not acting in good faith right in the middle of labor negotiations." said Ellis, alluding to the Austin Police Association.  

Last year PAC Save Austin Now -- then helmed by the association’s since-retired president was accused of running a misleading petition campaign to get a police staffing initiative on the ballot.

On Dec. 2 FOX 7 Austin asked Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek if the group "had anything to do with" the APOA petition campaign. She replied, "No, absolutely not. We are not involved with any petitions. We understand there will be an election next year. And we do want the citizens to vote on it, but we are not involved at all." 

FOX 7 Austin contacted the union’s current president about the petition campaign. He has not responded. 

Sources with alleged knowledge of VOPA have yet to provide contact information. It is still unclear what the group is and who is part of it. A City of Austin spokesperson said they are not affiliated with the group.

Ellis said Austinites who believe they have been misled can file a form with the City Clerk's Office to have their name removed from the petition.