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Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.

Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.

[…]

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.

“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”

[…]

Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”

Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.

My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?

David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.

That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.

“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”

Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.

State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”

Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.

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10 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    It’s interesting because the firefighters hired Texas Petition Strategies to run their signature drive. What’s odd is that the alcohol related petitions get right on the ballot. They get their signatures in about two days, when HEB or some other company wants to repeal the dry law in the Heights. This is precisely why we need to see Turner’s tax returns. We should protest every day until he releases them.

  2. Ross says:

    Turner can’t make the Secretary work faster, apparently. Anna Russell does her own thing, at her own pace, which is why she screwed up the HERO petition so badly. She really should have been fired at that point, but it seems like everyone is afraid of her.

    The Heights petitions were less than a tenth the size of the HFD petition, and were limited to something like 10 precincts, which makes things a lot easier to check.

  3. Jason Hochman says:

    @Ross: Anna Russell is very nice and her office is efficient. Turner is clearly behind this. His denial of “nobody runs the secretary office except for the secretary” is quite hollow. If it suited his political ambitions to get it done, he would get it done.

  4. C.L. says:

    @Jason… the American public can’t get the President to release his tax returns – who are you to demand the Mayor release his ?

  5. Jason Hochman says:

    C.L. well, he makes more than most other mayors in the country: “A year and a half into Sylvester Turner’s tenure as mayor, he ranks near the top of the list for mayoral salaries across the country. Houston’s mayor comes in third, making slightly less than the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

    And then he is wanting everyone else to sacrifice. And he made a big show boat of abiding by the Paris agreement. He should forego some of his salary to help the environment.

  6. C.L. says:

    @Jason What does Turner’s current salary have to do with your perceived right to review his tax returns ?

  7. Steve Houston says:

    Jason, just come out and say it, you think Turner is being paid by outside interests. As far as his city salary is concerned, if you’d rather the city were run by a multi-billionaire like NYC or run by people clearly feathering their nests as other major cities seem to be okay with, that’s one approach but a quick look at private sector compensation shows CEO’s getting a great deal more for managing less complex budgets in organizations smaller than Houston ($2+ billion a year, ~25k employees). If you have an allegation of substance to level rather than wanting to go on a fishing expedition, go ahead and make it.

    As for the firefighters, why can’t they accept the offer on the table to take the offered 9.5% as their petition runs its course? If the pension petition can continue without the originators promoting it, so can the parity petition should that be made a condition of the contract. Any contract between the city and the HFD union would have no effect on the petition so why not man up, take the offer, and keep working on something better on the side? I’m sure there are enough employees willing to keep it going whether the petition is voted on in November or May, the union claiming over 50k signatures which will take a great deal more time than the tiny Heights petition did, and that one did not have another petition ahead of it.

  8. David Fagan says:

    @Steve, harping on a %9.5 raise and “why don’t they just take it” is getting a little old. On the face of it, everyone would agree a 9.5% raise would be significant IF the employees had received some type of raise in the past. Saying everything in the past does not matter is pointless also because 4000 firefighters tend to take their past efforts into account. So, are you able to see a different point of view? Could there be concessions in the contract to provide the Firefighters this “raise” because if there are, it is not a raise at all, just an accounting and negotiations game. Could there be a reason for this course of action that has nothing to do with the same old discussions? Maybe there is more to it than 9.5 coming from a mayor who has earned all the distrust he receives. Maybe, just maybe………..entertaining new questions can lead a person out of a tired agenda.

  9. Steve Houston says:

    David, if you think it’s “getting old” than why do you and a handful of others keep reviving the topic repeatedly, apparently expecting new results? And if there are concessions needed to earn the 9.5%, why don’t any of you ever raise them in the discussions? I see the varying points of view on the topic, Bill Daniel’s has the most pointed (ie: the city can’t afford premium services so many of you should be laid off), others have suggested changes in scheduling, and still others agree with me that you should get a raise but not a blank check.

    But honestly, tell me why you think accepting the 9.5% offer as the petition works its way through the process is such a bad idea. At least that way, you’ll have a raise long before any legal issues with the referendum are settled, a process that could take years. Without good reason to hold out longer, your group gives the impression that you are willing to cut your nose off to spite your face. I apologize if I am mistaken in that regard but I am not alone in my beliefs to that effect, feel free to jump in and educate us all by clarifying.

    And given your lengthy history of mutual support with Turner, your former go-to person for legislative matters, any sour grapes this far into the process are easy for guys like Marc Campos to jump upon. Their take being “You created this monster so now you deal with the consequences”.

  10. David Fagan says:

    Your willingness to be educated is a step in the right direction. Start with the previous conversations on this blog site. It will never matter what points are brought up if the person receiving the knowledge does not empathise and at least think about the point of view, or education, which is being provided. It is like watering the concrete and expecting flowers, and it gets tiring, and boring, to hear that fire fighters are to blame and the finger is pointed at them at all times. People do not listen, and now fire fighters are looking to alternatives to working for Houston. 9.5 or no.

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