Two weeks after an employment contract between Austin police and the city expired, a legal dispute is emerging focused on the operation of the city's police monitor's office.

Fifteen years ago, the city opened an oversight agency and said its operations, including the work of a citizens panel, was possible because of a contract with officers.

Now with no contract, the city is planning to continue many of its operations -- an issue that is drawing criticism from the union and could lead to a court battle.

In a memo to Austin's mayor and city council last month, Interim City Manager Elaine Hart said that she believes the monitor's office can continue having access to confidential police files -- even with no contract. The city is basing its legal opinion, in part, on a 2000 ruling from the Attorney General's office.

According to Hart's memo, she believes that the monitor's office can continue operating as it has because it is an extension of her management. Her memo acknowledges, however, that attorneys are still researching whether a citizens panel affiliated with the office can continue having access to confidential information with no contract in place.

However, police union lawyers contend only commissioned police officers can have such access with no contract.

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said it is possible that the union could challenge the city's position in court in coming weeks.