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Firefighters file suit over handling of pay parity proposal

I figured we’d have to wait till after the eventual vote on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal for there to be litigation over it, but no.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The union representing Houston firefighters sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and a City Council member on Monday, alleging the officials are improperly using public resources to oppose a “pay parity” ballot initiative.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association accuses Mayor Turner and Council Member Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood, of campaigning against the ballot initiative, which would tie firefighter pay to that of Houston police officers of comparable rank and seniority.

The union argues it is a violation of the Texas Election Code and is asking for an injunction that would prohibit the officials from “continuing to post such political advertising on the City of Houston website.”

The mayor’s declined to comment Monday evening.

See here for the background. On Tuesday, they got a result.

Judge Kyle Carter agreed with the Houston fire union’s argument that the city council’s July 26 budget committee meeting constituted an act of illegal electioneering against the proposal and that public resources, essentially, had been used to present and post a political advertisement. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the budget committee, over the issue on Monday.

“There is a fair way to go about voicing your opposition and creating a campaign against a certain resolution and then there’s an unfair way,” Carter said in delivering his Tuesday morning decision. “Much of the hearing, I thought, was informative and served its purpose. However, there was a good portion of the hearing that … went beyond the pale.”

He did not elaborate on what comments he thought went too far.

Carter ordered attorneys for the city and the fire union to discuss what portions of the tape could be returned to the city website after the offending portions were redacted. The order, as issued, is valid through Aug. 14.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin-based public law attorney who helped pass Texas’ first open meetings and open records laws in 1973, said he had never heard of such a ruling in his 50 years of practice.

“Making your position known in a public forum is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about. Not only that, assuming it gets filmed by the city, it’s an open record and you can go get it under the public information act. That’s the whole idea,” Wood said. “The fact that they don’t like what the mayor and the council are saying doesn’t make any difference. That’s content censorship. I never heard of such a thing.”

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer with 25 years of experience in open meetings and open records law, agreed. Larsen said he can see such a committee discussion being problematic if its agenda was not posted properly or if the issue being discussed was irrelevant to the committee’s focus, but he said he cannot otherwise envision a way in which such a hearing could constitute electioneering.

“I don’t see how it could be,” he said. “What’s wrong about people taking a public position? How do you restrict your public officials on what they’re going to discuss? That can’t be the right result.”

“That is the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford,” Turner said. “The public has a right to listen to the public hearing and we will vigorously challenge the judge’s ruling.”

Not really sure what the practical effect of this ruling is. I mean, how much traffic do those committee hearing videos get? There was an earlier version of this story in which the Mayor referred to the proposal as “the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford”, a quote he repeated later on KUHF. The firefighters may have gotten this ruling – which the Mayor says he will appeal – but Turner get the opportunity to keep making his case against the firefighters in the news. Not sure that’s a great tradeoff for the firefighters.

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13 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    I talked to a firefighter on Monday evening, and he said that they all know that Mayor Turner told City Secretary, Mrs. Russell, to put aside their petition, and Turner has continued to try to thwart their petition. He needs to be impeached. He is a segregationist, who has a place for everyone: the homeless, those pesky minorities, and the elites. He has disregarded public safety. If you look at Wayne Dolcefino’s Web site, you will see that Mayor Turner pooh poohed the study about the sorry state of the firefighting equipment. Council man Steve Le bought a rescue boat out of his own money, for the fire station in his district. Yet, during Harvey, the local media hailed Turner as a visionary genius, and he was out there, throwing out pitches, going to banquets, and talking to the cameras. I have never heard him come up with one original idea. He cries all the time that he wants to break the revenue cap, and that the city is broke, yet, there is money to send him to South America on a fact finding mission. He has not reported any found facts to the general public, though, and I am sure that he wasn’t camping on the pampa, but rather, lived it up in S. America in the finest hotel the tax dollars could afford. These firefighters are asked to risk their lives. We must crack the stranglehold that the Democrats have on the local government.

  2. Steve Houston says:

    Jason, just because a special interest group claims to “know” something, that doesn’t make it true. If they could have proven as much, they would have by now. Instead, they continue to go judge shopping to get their way. As a result of this latest venture, they took an obscure B&F meeting that virtually no one watched or planned to watch, and gave those opposing the petition a ton of ammo. The meeting happened so preventing the public from watching it only fueled the numbers of those who will see it, the Chronicle and other outlets kindly providing a copy for all to see since they aren’t beholden to the extremely unusual ruling. If a judge ruled to censor a meeting that supported your agenda, you’d be screaming bloody murder about it and you know it.

    As for your other attacks on the Mayor, over 80% of the city’s operating budget goes to public safety so that’s as stupid a claim as the unproven signature counting comment you made, those “pesky minorities” you refer to are almost certain to vote for him in droves as they always have, he also “pooh poohed” the part of the study that called for firing over 840 fire fighters as he has increased spending on fire equipment by millions of dollars, those trade missions are all paid for by private funding sources and grants, and your use of Wayne as a source is hilarious given his method of throwing anything at the wall to see if innuendo and smears might stick, the courts sure though so. Mayor Turner’s not perfect, nor a “visionary genius” as far as I can tell, but he’s worked with the cards dealt him a darned sight better than some of you want to admit.

  3. David Fagan says:

    Hey, Steve, this being your big issue, and the level of opinionated research you’ve done, what do you think about the absence of opinion on this blog about the liens imposed on the families of fallen fire fighters? Does that make you want to join the fire service even more?

  4. C.L. says:

    @David… hold on. Wasn’t the intent of the liens filed to “The City had hoped it could recoup some of the money from possible settlements and judgments the families filed against private companies that they believe contributed to the deaths of their loved ones, KRIV reported.” So the City shouldn’t have pursued getting reimbursed for monies spent ? I’m not saying that approach is good optics or bad optics, but certainly the City has an obligation to keep the budget under control and to be reimbursed for items they’re legally available to pursue.

    And didn’t the City abandon this ‘plan’ before it even went into effect ? “Shortly before Kubosh and Lancton were set to go on-air Wednesday night to discuss the lawsuits, the city issued a statement to KRIV that said it would not be moving forward with the liens. “The City is not pursuing recovery on any lien from anyone in this case,” Mary Benton, press secretary for the mayor, wrote in a statement.”

  5. C.L. says:

    Wayne Dolcefino, Bill Spencer, and Mario Diaz. What do these folks have in common ? Little to nothing, save for one’s been a Houston media blowhard with little to no credibility longer than the others.

  6. David Fagan says:

    Wasn’t the way it went like this? There were liens, then the liens didn’t exist, then the city want pursuing the liens, then the city wasn’t pursuing something that didn’t exist, then it was brought up by a city council member to grant a release from liens that didn’t exist, then the city wasn’t pursuing liens that existed but wouldn’t grant the release. If the city were your child, you would know it was lying through it’s teeth. Through this amazing rigamarole, I would have expected it to make it to this Blog seeing how every other minutia the FD does makes it here, but this important issue that raises more questions than answers has missed it.

  7. Bill Daniels says:

    David,

    Here’s how the liens work. You get hurt or die on the job. You are compensated for that by my workman’s compensation policy, the policy I buy specifically to protect me from you suing me if something bad happens. Now, the cause of your injury or death turns out to be someone else’s fault. Since my insurance company is the one that has actually paid out for your damages, they should subrogate, to try and recover the money they paid out from the party actually responsible.

    You may have experienced this if you got in an auto accident. You got hit, it wasn’t your fault, so your insurance company paid you, then went after the other driver for what they paid you. If you sue and collect from the other driver AND take the money from your insurance company, you have double dipped, and you don’t get to do that. When your insurer finds out you collected from the responsible party AND from the insurer, the insurer is going to want to recover the money from the responsible party….from YOU, because you got paid.

    I understand the emotion of dead fire fighters, but the city, which I think is self insured, has the right to collect from the responsible party when it pays a claim, and more to the point, the city has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to collect.

    The city has every right and interest in not allowing the families to double dip, and collect twice for the same tort.

    Finally, don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just explaining why the city was justified in trying to collect.

  8. Basically houstonians are too lazy to learn basic arithmetic and too selfish to pay an extra $12.27 a month. Repeal the revenue cap.

  9. Steve Houston says:

    David, it’s always an eye opener reading your spin on things, the heavy pro-firemen bias a given but the willingness to overlook the details in favor of selling your agenda is always so bold… Bill and CL covered it really well from two different angles, my “research” not opinionated in the slightest as I drew the same conclusions. You can fault the miscommunications tied to a large organization trying to provide faster answers or accepting that some of the people simply didn’t communicate as well as others but the attempt to milk it politically as though there was a nefarious plot to “get” the families of “fallen firemen” is part of the reason your organization is losing favor with voters.

    Joe, your disdain for the people of Houston is noted (again) but it’s their call. Just because a self important narcissist (you) think you can better spend their money on all sorts of things, they seem to disagree or the Mayor would have the repeal on the ballot in November. So, are you going to run another non-campaign next time and then blame Houstonians for preferring Harvard graduates some more? lol

  10. Just drawing attention to obvious.

    The budget is public. Who knew inflation and economics 101 were so difficult to understand.

    4 republican states voted down TABOR and no other US city has one.

    I don’t see any of the lawyers or mba’s on city council explaining this on their website.

    With all the uh amd rice alumni at city hall. Maybe these universities should improve their curriculum if their alumni can’t explain the consequences of a $12.27 revenue cap.

  11. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, that works both ways with regard to inflation and Economics 101. Every year, people are already paying more for all the necessities they purchase and every year, their taxes go up so you can belittle the voters/residents of the city all you like but they know the squeeze more intimately than you give them credit for. Pining over the lack of taxpayer rights across the country or the city’s unwillingness to venture into areas where it has zero expertise as you typically do, won’t change the fact that no matter what university (or in your case, college) someone went to, convincing taxpayers to willingly pay “more” requires more than technical skills, it requires those people skills you lack.

    But all the mayors elected since the tax cap was invoked have explained in great detail what the consequences were and aside from a few elitists with lengthy wish lists on how to spend the extra money, most people do not appear to support repealing the cap. At the same time, they want all the same services and more so good luck trying to convince Joe Six-Pack to dig deeper than he already has to with ever increasing property valuations, expanded fees, and the attitude that he gets when listening to people all too willing to spend other people’s money. You can darned near count on the fact that as government costs have gone up, few of the masses have received overnight raises of 25 to 30% without having to give anything up in return, but those like you with the Marie Antoinette attitudes are more than welcome to convince the common folk as you see fit. Having seen your election returns, I won’t hold my breath waiting for progress coming from your corner.

  12. The next time someone loses their job(s) and almost loses their life and daughters life, in two separate accidents, within a 2 month time span. While people make them feel bad about being depressed.

    Don’t be surprised when they ‘lash out’

    It’s not complaining when someone actually has over 100+ pages of ideas.

    Get-a-clue Houston

  13. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, this might come as a surprise to you but many people have ideas, some even have ideas of their own that weren’t just Googled without vetting before being put on a campaign website. The thing is, it’s on the person that wants change to convince others why the change is good for those others; just calling voters “lazy” or “stupid” or belittling their degree’s from UH, Harvard, or Rice because you’ve been unable to communicate effectively won’t work. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, you still have to convince the voters and/or elected officials that you’ve found a better way or built a better mousetrap.

    So if you’re depressed, go get professional help. There’s no shame in that. If you want to effectively champion progress, focus on an idea or two, find like minded people to assist you and be prepared to encounter resistance because many resist change and others may find your changes cut them out of the action. Just assuming people will embrace your idea, no matter how good it is, has proven the downfall of many in the past. And the quantity of your ideas has nothing to do with the quality of those ideas, nor whether people see you as complaining, that comes from your presentation.