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Judge orders firefighters’ petitions to be counted

Can’t say I’m surprised.

A state district judge on Tuesday ordered Houston’s city secretary to finish reviewing firefighters’ petition asking for pay parity with police, giving her until April 27 to validate the eight-month-old signatures.

Firefighters submitted a petition last July asking for a ballot referendum that would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of equal rank, but City Secretary Anna Russell did not validate it in time for the November election.

Leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued in December asking the court to give Russell 30 days to review the petition signatures, and last week appeared before state District Judge Dan Hinde.

Hinde did not immediately issue a ruling, but sided with firefighters on Tuesday.

“The city secretary’s continuing failure to count signatures and verify the sufficiency of the pay parity petition constitutes a continuing failure to fulfill her ministerial duty,” Hinde wrote. “The city secretary has been and remains in default of her ministerial duty.”

See here for the background. I mean, look, the petitions were delivered to City Hall last July, which is to say eight months ago. Given that there were other petitions ahead of it, I could believe that Secretary Russell might not have been able to get them checked out in time for last November, but this is ridiculous. It didn’t take nearly this long to verify the anti-HERO petitions, for example, and as I recall her staff worked overtime to do that. I think this is a lousy proposition and I plan to vote against it, but at some point the job just needs to get done.

Now if the deadline to count the valid signatures is April 27, that means this will be ticketed for November, assuming enough of the sigs do check out. (Boy, wouldn’t that be a farcical conclusion to this saga if the verdict is “sorry, you fell short”.) From a participatory democracy perspective, having this voted on in a large November turnout context is better than a single-digit May electorate. Of course, since we know someone is going to sue to have the election overturned no matter what the outcome is – there’s literally no chance that the referendum can be written in a way that is both fully explanatory and not confusing; the ballot language lawsuit can be drafted now and ready to go as soon as the vote totals are in and a suitable plaintiff can be located – I feel like we could save ourselves the trouble by just flipping a coin to determine who “wins” and then going straight to the litigation. Eventually, the Supreme Court will tell us what their preferred result is, and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: The KUHF story, which includes a copy of Judge Hinde’s ruling, confirms that the next opportunity for this to be on a ballot at this point is November.

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11 Comments

  1. David Fagan says:

    par·i·ty
    ˈperədē/
    noun
    1.
    the state or condition of being equal, especially regarding status or pay.

    If inequality is the norm and is supported, just say so. Should firefighters actively be paid less than police, just because they are firefighters? Do firefighters hold an unequal state or condition? If so, to what degree? How do you measure the right amount of inequality firefighters deserve?

  2. David Fagan says:

    Why raise firefighter pay equal to police? If parity is passed, lower police pay to firefighter pay and the city can save a lot of money, that’s what people want? Save money?

  3. Steve Houston says:

    While I believe the petition should have been counted last year even if it would not have been in time for the election, I still have yet to hear exactly how workers of different types can ever be “equal” in the sense of compensation. In fundamental terms, lumping all “public safety” into a generic category seems inherently flawed on many levels in this community.

    Some small cities do this by cross training all cops and fire to label them all as public safety workers but compensation is largely a function of supply and demand. How many people apply for HFD entry level positions vs HPD, how many of each are qualified, and how do you compare specific positions against one another? A quick search shows the cops are unable to hire enough qualified people and this condition has existed for many years while HFD routinely has many dozens of people apply for each opening. Why shouldn’t that factor into any comparison?

    Moving past entry level stuff, how does each level of both organizations find a commonality to deserve a specific amount of pay/benefits? Nothing offered by the petitioners to date has been satisfactory in showing how each position they want to equate have the same duties, same amount of span of control, or the same amount of training/educational requirements. And while I’ve also heard the battle cry to lower cop pay or to lay off as many fire guys as needed to maintain the same budget or even to impose the same requirements on each group, I’d rather just have each paid comparable to their local counterparts. HPD would be paid similar to HCSO and HFD paid similarly to the closest several fire departments since most in the county are volunteers. Does that make sense?

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Seems like comparing cops to firefighters is like comparing apples and oranges.

    The firefighters work 24 hour shifts, yes? During that 24 hours, they have to eat sometime, and no doubt sleep at least a little bit. Busy day? Maybe they didn’t get to eat 3 full meals and sleep 8 hours, but I bet they ate SOMETHING, and I bet during an average month, they get SOME sleep at the fire house. That’s eating and sleeping that the taxpayers paid for. When a cop eats or sleeps, he’s supposed to clock out. We don’t pay the cops for time spent eating and sleeping, but the firefighters do get paid for that. That makes pay for each group a little different, and that’s OK.

  5. David Fagan says:

    Over the past few contact negotiations it would be common sense that ” paid comparable to their local counterparts” would have been a focus, but we continually are reminded that HFD are among the lowest in the nation, we are also continually reminded that the only incentives WAS the pension and the schedule. Without the pension the compensation has been reduced to the lowest paid in the nation. If the compensation of hfd in the form of pension can be reduced to make up for the city’s lack of payment to the other systems, and contact negotiations with ” paid comparable to their local counterparts.” Have failed, what is left. The volunteer fire departments are disappearing, compare to Pearland? Compare to Woodlands? I’m sure HFD would entertain those suggestions. But it would probably be greater than the 9.5% offered previously, and everyone can understand and accept the reasons HFD, and the city has come to this, but it sure didn’t need to, and why does it have to? HFD is paid to be READY, not to eat or sleep or however people want to criticize. During hurricanes and floods are a great example when a city does not have resources at the ready, and things get destroyed, people’s lives are changed. Why does it even need to come to this?

  6. Steve Houston says:

    David, none of your comments address the core issues presented of why specific positions in the fire department should be compensated the same as specific positions in the police department. Even agreeing that you deserve a pay raise does nothing to justify the contents of the petition. And doesn’t do you any good to make claims that you’ve somehow lost your pensions because that is simply not true. Why is it so troubling to use common sense factors for setting your compensation levels like qualified applicants per position?

    And the concept that you are “paid to be ready” is lost when the bulk of your department, fire suppression, is vastly under utilized under most circumstances. Under optimal conditions, all that extra capacity is swell but as you point out, the city doesn’t have the resources to properly use that capacity nor the money to afford it. Isn’t that the basis for the study suggesting the city reduce the size of your operation by 800+ people? It might mean that every now and then, there aren’t enough people to perfectly handle a situation but who wants to pay great sums of money for every possible scenario when over 99% of the time, manpower is not used? It sounds like a restructuring of your operation is more important to start with, then calculating how much should be paid and how many need to be employed.

  7. David Fagan says:

    Well, Steve, taking all that into consideration, have you answered the final question, “why does it even need to come to this”? And, if the fire department is such a get over-paid to do nothing job, and that’s the kind of job you want, then go join, it’s open to everyone.

  8. Bill Daniels says:

    Here’s the bottom line. Is HFD getting all the qualified applicants they want at the wages being offered? Yes? Then they are paying market rates. If no one is applying to be a firefighter and staff shortages are starting, then they need to pay more. That’s exactly how things work in the private sector, and whether public sector or private, every worker feels like they deserve higher pay for what they do.

  9. Steve Houston says:

    David, no one is arguing the need for a fire department, some of us are just asking easy to answer questions about compensation. Like it or not, Bill is accurate in his assessment of a credible compensation model. Despite your people always trying to vilify whichever mayor is in office, your representatives have complained for the last six administrations at how poorly you are paid yet historically, between 100 and 200 people apply for each opening. So in answer to your question, the most reasonable answer is that it has come to this because the employees in HFD disagree with a super majority of elected officials (city and state) so they want to trick low information voters into siding with them.

  10. David Fagan says:

    How is HFD’s issues always blamed on the employees? Can all of the City Government be discounted and seen as a victim? If the thousands of people who belong to HFD are such a manipulative political body so as to ” trick low information voters into siding with them” I don’t think they would be fire fighters, they would be politicians. Also, don’t underestimate the knowledge of the average voter, it may not be considered “low informed” but definitely misinformed. The first and only step is to stop blaming the fire fighters and LISTEN to what they have to say and ask yourself, ‘what if it is true?’ Other than that, I will not water the concrete and expect flowers.

  11. Steve Houston says:

    David, nobody here has ever suggested all of “HFD’s issues” were the fault of employees, their union, or their pension board. In this particular case however, that happens to be the case. If you want to talk about lack of resources, equipment, training, or a dozen other topics, we can share a beer together while pointing fingers at poor prioritization decisions made over the last 20+ years. That is on the city and it’s appointed administrators.

    But the suggestion that no employees are politicians or act like them flies in the face of all the political maneuvering over those years, from the political candidates you so loudly support or declare “anti-HFD” to the multitude of testimony at state hearings using false or outdated information, and so forth. Your union and pension representatives keep backing the wrong candidates for mayor, relying on those in the legislature to protect you except that didn’t work, did it? Now, instead of explaining the unexplainable as to how specific pay positions from one group can be equated to another, you put on the pity party antics as though you are so mistreated but still want to stay.

    Bill presented the basic reasoning of how people are compensated across the universe, the law of supply and demand. Forget all the details about getting to sleep while being paid, working 8 or 9 days a month, not needing a college degree, or the dozen other sticking points that so inflame your representatives when brought up. Just cutting right to the point, all those people applying for openings equates to a large supply of willing people for relatively few positions. But you want to be compared to people who have faced severe staffing shortages for a long time, the demand being much greater than the supply. It’s not about anyone liking them more than you, the opposite is the case with everyone I know, it’s about the market.