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The legal option for Prop B

Here we go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask Houston city council Wednesday to hire a law firm to advise the city on possible litigation related to the firefighter pay parity measure, setting in motion a potential court challenge to the item approved by voters earlier this month.

While the firefighters union has urged the city to return to the negotiating table, Turner has questioned whether the city could preempt the ballot measure approved by voters, suggesting a judge should settle the question first.

Firefighters and labor attorneys contend the mayor does not need to seek a judge’s opinion, saying Texas’ collective bargaining laws preempt the city charter.

The city still has not sought a legal opinion on the matter.

[…]

The mayor, who instructed each city department in September to submit plans for reducing their respective budgets by 3.4 to 5.2 percent, has remained tight-lipped about how he plans to make the cuts he has warned are needed to square the city’s budget.

The Chronicle submitted a public information request seeking copies of the departments’ budget-cutting memos, but the city has sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on whether the documents can be exempted from disclosure.

Several city departments — including the Administration of Regulatory Affairs, the Solid Waste Department, and Public Works and Engineering — declined to say how Prop B-related cuts would impact their services and referred all questions to the mayor’s office. Alan Bernstein, a mayoral spokesman, referred the Chronicle to the months-old memo asking departments to submit “reduction scenarios.”

We knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting there to be litigation over this from the beginning, regardless of who won. Now we get to see what form this takes.

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

[…]

Turner told reporters after the meeting that he would have legally challenged Proposition B before the election, but found legal precedent that said such a move had to wait until voters approved the measure.

“There’s only one issue right here: whether or not it was preempted by state law,” Turner said. “If a judge should come back and say to the City of Houston it wasn’t preempted by state law, then we’ll have to move very quickly to implement it.”

Basically, as I see it there are three possible outcomes:

1. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does not conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, thus paving the way for Mayor Turner and the firefighters to sit down and hash out an agreement on how to implement Prop B in a way that doesn’t kneecap the city financially. This is the firefighters’ preferred resolution.

2. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely win a lawsuit because of that, or because of some other reason. You know what happens next in this case.

3. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely lose a lawsuit. This way leads to budget cuts, layoffs, quite possibly litigation from one or more of several other groups – the firefighters, the police who are threatening their own legal action anyway, some other aggrieved citizens – and an unknown amount of chaos going into the 2019 election. At least it won’t be boring.

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18 Comments

  1. Manny Barrera says:

    Still trying to figure out what pay parity per rank is as ranks are not similar. The following is from 2017. Proposition did not state how fast or slow it should be implemented. It is my understanding the firefighters may accept over a three year period.

    Turner is being anal about this proposition.

    http://mannybarrera.com/City/FireFighterPoliceSalary.pdf

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Manny,

    Remember Bill White’s red light cameras, and the white knight (pun intended) Kubosh bros. who got the issue on the ballot? Voters spoke. They wanted the cameras gone ASAP, not in a few years. The voters spoke about red light cameras. The voters also spoke about firefighter pay. So do it now. Fire $ 100M worth of city employees and then hand out those raises.

    Laissez les bons temps rouler!

  3. David Fagan says:

    The voters approved both collective bargaining and pay parity, making that interesting. Something else interesting is the argument that many FF’s do not live in the city, therefore they should not be considered as well as people who live in the city, while the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright is based in London, England (not Texas), and these are the default lawyers on the case, and many other cases presented to the City. How do these contracts not come under similar bidding competition? Once again, the lawyers win.

  4. C.L. says:

    Bill, that sounds like a brilliant plan for the City !

    David, where a person lives has zero bearing on the wage they’re receiving, or should be receiving, from their employer, nor should where a law firm is based have any effect on the cases they decide to pursue or contracts for services they accept. FWIW, Norton Rose Fulbright has had an office in Houston for just shy of a 100 years.

  5. Manny Barrera says:

    Bill you are a trusting fella, you believe everything Trump says and you believe everything Turner says.

    If we want to make America great again, we have to make unions great again. They gave us the middle class and the products that the world wanted to buy. Made in America.

  6. David Fagan says:

    C.L. Fulbright & Jaworski was established in Houston 1919, Norton Rose in London. The global conglomeration appears to enact a Wal Mart strategy. I wouldn’t consider them a local business, they don’t consider themselves local, but global. Where is the competition for Houston legal contracts? When the contracts include a $1 billion bond proposal, they get the contract, $500,000 court challenge, they get the contract. When this law firm managed the anti prop B campaign, they stand to profit anyway. Ultimately, the prop b issue should bring to light who runs this city. The C Club endorses all the people who pushed the pension issue through the state, leading to a bond sale organised by this law firm, the Greater Houston Partnership is the only person invited to the budget committee to explain the pension operation to councilman Martin. It is an easy conclusion to come to that this very law firm wrote the language for the pension bill. The only question is, who owns the bonds? I’m sure there are people in the GHP who do, but try to find that information. Prop B, in this light, is a wonderful thing. Because, hopefully, it disrupts this level of influence and hopefully leads to the removal of the revenue cap that helps the level of control these people have. This city needs state influence just to keep this level of control at bay. To think Houston should be run outside the influence of the state would give the City to a small group of powerful, and global, individuals. If they can write the local law and pass the local law, they can ultimately do whatever they want to with local tax dollars. With the revenue cap and the proliferation of TIRZ and other sequestered tax dollars, that’s exactly what they have. I invite the criticisms of this idea, because if people want to accuse me of coming up with this idea, instead of observing it, I would struggle to remain humble.

  7. We know houstonians are too lazy to learn simple arithmetic and too selfish to pay an extra $12.27

    That’s why they won’t repeal the revenue cap. No other US city is dumb enough to have one.

    4 republican states and 2 democratic states voted down a state-wide TABOR (revenue cap).

    I didn’t need to run for office to know that private and public sector leaders were this lazy.

  8. Cissy Carline says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding how Mayor Turner claims we cannot afford to give firefighters a raise but can afford all this litigation.
    This man is causing our firefighters and police officers to develop a hatred for each other. Instead of trying to smooth things out he just keeps pouring fuel on the fire.
    How would he feel if his house caught on fire and there weren’t enough firefighters to put it out? How would he feel if he needed an ambulance and there was none available?

    Our politicians work for us and yet make more than the avg person does. Also they fight not to do the things we the people vote on.
    When is enough enough? Why do they make so much and do so little?
    If you can afford the lawyer you can afford the raise. Let the kids completing the academy graduate. Don’t freeze hiring in neither police nor fire. These are two areas we desperately need personel.
    Mr. Turner, please work with your people and not against them.

  9. Jason Hochman says:

    As Mayor Turner said, “I could shoot someone in the middle of Montrose Blvd and these people would still vote for me.” Just like Mayor Parker, who pitched a fit when the voters chose not to have HERO, we have another mayor who doesn’t care about the voters. He would love for you to vote for him and go away, shut up, and let him reward his patrons.

    If you have followed the Protect Houston PAC, you would remember that it put up a poster at the site of the fire that killed five Houston firefighters. Mayor Turner said that he had no idea who put up the poster. However, if you looked at the campaign finance report, you would see that Mayor Turner’s campaign is the primary donor to the Protect Houston PAC. And you would see that Norton Rose Fulbright is one of the bigger donors that gave $15,000. In return, they got the $500,000 contract. Not a bad ROI there. What will it take to get this mayor out of office?

  10. Ross says:

    @Cissy, you are totally clueless on this topic. Turner is spending less than a million dollars for legal advice, while the estimated cost of Prop B is 100 million dollars, which the City doesn’t have. That money would require a 10 percent increase in City property tax collections. Are you willing to pay that?

    We could reduce the number of firefighters by 30 percent without impacting public safety, so a hiring freeze is reasonable. We don’t really need more police, either.

  11. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, I believe city council amended to approve a legal budget of 500,000 for the matter, stating they did not have to spend the entire thing. As you point out, that is a far cry from the 100 Million dollars a year or more needed to institute Prop B without laying people off. Until existing manpower is used more efficiently, neither public safety organization should expand.

    Jason, take off your tinfoil conspiracy cap and look at it objectively. The campaign printed thousands of signs and the mayor’s appointed representative, Fire Chief Pena, complained loudly regarding the placement of the sign. Unless you have proof the mayor ordered it placed in the sensitive spot, you might want to stop drawing wild conclusions. The same goes for the legal contract, the reputable firm has a great deal of expertise in the matter and it is time sensitive so like it or not, they were picked. Provide some proof the contract was bought or sit down.

    Cissy, if you can’t understand the difference between the much smaller, one-time amount used for litigation to clarify how the city should proceed versus the incredible ongoing yearly cost of the proposed raises, you might want to sit this one out. As far as why politicians often make more than the workers, go try to find companies where the CEO makes less than the people working the assembly line. Maybe you’ll find a few…

    Joe, I’m sure your endearing remarks about local voters will have them sweep you into office any time now (not!). The voters made a choice and in Prop B they also made a choice, now the mayor can fulfill the wishes of the voters immediately which would require layoffs of existing workers or he can deny the wishes of voters and find a legal solution to delay the raises but spreading it out over several years will not solve the problem.

    David, you are mistaken that the GHP was the only group invited because the FF union was invited as well, otherwise, it was posted for anyone who wanted to attend and speak. Seeing as how so many people want the city to run more like a business as well as remain business-friendly, why is it so unreasonable to seek input from the business community?

    CL, I agree. We should hire city workers based on their qualifications, not their geography, the same as contractors, vendors, and others that do business with the city. Now if a FF who resides out of state can’t make it when called on an emergency, or a lawyer can’t attend court because they reside out of state, that might be grounds for firing them but otherwise you’re right.

    Manny, funny you should mention a resurgence of unions since many media sources have claimed the decades long decline in unions appears to have been reversed by the election of your pal Trump, multiple SCOTUS decisions against unions notwithstanding.

    Me: It was interesting to hear one city councilman state many of his constituents voted for Prop B on the basis that they believed HFD should be downsized and EMS contracted out to others. That was at the council meeting the other day and I can’t say that such moves would be in the best interests of the voters but short of a legal ruling allowing Prop B to be spread out over 10 years or more, something is going to have to give to make the finances work. Also, is the library’s drag queen story program that big a deal given it is voluntary? To hear the county residents tell it, all gays are child molesters that are using the program to lure children into their lifestyle.

  12. Steve,

    I’m sure there are much prettier cities that would appreciate someone putting dozens/hundreds of ideas together on how to save taxpayers money and increase their wages.

  13. David Fagan says:

    It is not hard to think this issue could go to the state supreme court. The voters voted for both collective bargaining and pay parity. Trying to challenge preemption of both voter supported issues sounds like a legal vineyard. Sure it’ll cost more than $500,000, but that $500,000 gets their foot in the door. Think of where this city will be if Turner, or shall I say the “business community”, or OCP , get their way. They should definitely consider it, because they never considered prop b.

  14. Jason Hochman says:

    Hi Steve, thanks as always for your rational response. But if you look at the campaign finance and see that Turner and the law firm Norton Rose are the two biggest contributors to Protect Houston PAC, and then the contract goes to Norton Rose, and then, the other contract to Turner’s former partner, OK, you think that is just coincidence and that the city attorneys can’t handle this, and that after Turner brow beat city council to allow him to hire a law firm, and he picks one of his patrons, and this is all just tinfoil conspiracy thinking? All right then.

  15. Bill Daniels says:

    Let’s say the city spends $ 10M a year litigating this, and keeping the pay raises from happening, by tying it up in the courts. That’s a pretty good ROI…spend $ 1 to save $ 10.

  16. Teena Tilley says:

    Ur wong Mayor. We do not want a law firm, the fire fighters deserve a raise. Ur own Councilman said no to a law firm

  17. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, it wouldn’t cost that much but that’s not the best framework to view this in, despite the given ROI of obstruction. Let’s get the legal questions answered first and then proceed accordingly.

    Jason, city council found no objection to the specific firms hired based on their ties or their level of expertise in the fields in question when voting to approve the contracts. If you think a better firm for either would have given a better price, that’s one thing but Turner’s been a lawyer for decades. As such, he has ties, links, or has been friendly with a great many people over the years so you’ll need more than just that to make a claim of impropriety stick. And the city legal staff is already working on a variety of other projects, no city administration in memory handling all legal work internally.

    David, using that line of thought, the voters also voted for Mayor Turner and the city council to run the city. Is it possible what voters voted on 14 years ago (collective bargaining) might conflict with what they voted for last month (Prop B)? Of course it is and many expect the elected leaders to make that call or seek legal opinions to affirm their path. Will that ever appease the haters that want a specific outcome based on their desire? No!

    Joe, there are probably many places that would appreciate your self-proclaimed brilliance, although I defy you to find any that would appreciate you as much as you appreciate yourself. Cutting & pasting the ideas of others is not the worst approach to considering ideas but it hardly qualifies as brilliance, especially when no one else cares for them or the legislative hurdles are so numerous. As you routinely point out, local voters are “too dumb” to want to pay more in taxes to enrich the lives of government employees so good luck convincing them to fork over their hard earned cash to someone that shows such contempt for them.