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Restraining order lifted on firefighter pay referendum

Back to the planning stage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.

State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.

[…]

The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.

The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and [Judge Kristen] Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.

The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.

As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. Neither the HPOU nor the city plans to appeal at this time, so as things stand the city will need to figure out how to move forward with Prop B while the litigation plays out, as was the case with Renew Houston. It’s not going to get any more cordial from here, that much I know.

Trash fee to pay for Prop B?

Hard pass.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins on Thursday proposed charging property owners a monthly garbage collection fee to finance raises for firefighters while avoiding job cuts for other city staff.

Under the proposal, most Houston homeowners would be charged a flat, monthly fee between $25 and $40 to help the city absorb the cost of raises for firefighters mandated by the pay parity charter amendment approved by voters last month.

Unveiled at a Thursday press conference, Boykins’ proposal comes amid a legal challenge by the city over the constitutionality of Proposition B, the charter amendment granting firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience. The amendment was approved last month by 59 percent of voters.

“I believe the issue of pay parity was settled at the ballot box,” Boykins wrote in a Thursday letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and his colleagues on council. “As elected leaders, our primary mission is to settle on an appropriate and responsible way forward. To this end, I am convinced that introducing a garbage collection fee is the most plausible plan to provide firefighters a pay raise while ensuring that no city worker loses their job.”

Turner’s office issued a statement in which the mayor said he was opposed to the idea: “Council Member Boykins and the Firefighters Association’s proposal to enact a $25 monthly garbage collection fee to pay for a firefighter’s 29% pay raise, underscores what I have been saying for months. The City cannot afford Proposition B. This measure will cost the city more than $100 million each fiscal year. I will not support forcing Houston homeowners to pay a costly new tax on trash collection to pay for firefighters’ salaries.”

Look, I support the concept of a trash fee. I just want that fee to apply to the function of collecting and managing the city’s waste. More curbside recycling, including plastic bags, curbside compost collection – there are lots of things that other cities that have trash fees do with them. Propose this as part of a zero waste plan, I’ll shill for it all day long. This is not a good use for a trash fee. Nice try, but no.

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

Precinct analysis: Undervotes in the city

We’ve previously discussed non-partisan initiatives at the end of the ballot and how often people have undervoted in them in the past. Now let’s take a closer look at the two ballot items from this year.


Dist    A Yes    A No  A Under  A Under%
========================================
HD127  16,846   9,479    4,882    15.64%
HD129  15,278   6,940    4,410    16.56%
HD131  22,871   7,418    6,460    17.58%
HD133  37,434  15,266    9,363    15.09%
HD134  49,237  14,002    9,575    13.15%
HD137  14,463   5,022    5,140    20.87%
HD138  13,013   5,957    3,778    16.61%
HD139  18,245   6,560    4,406    15.08%
HD140   5,583   2,110    2,333    23.27%
HD141  10,341   2,964    3,766    22.06%
HD142  11,785   3,801    3,631    18.89%
HD143   6,577   2,596    2,831    23.58%
HD145  16,414   6,054    5,499    19.66%
HD146  28,706   8,365    7,047    15.97%
HD147  37,676   9,694    8,510    15.23%
HD148  31,230  10,823    6,811    13.94%
HD149  10,172   3,415    4,790    26.07%

Dist    B Yes    B No  B Under  B Under%
========================================
HD127  16,228  11,551    3,427    10.98%
HD129  13,701   9,714    3,215    12.07%
HD131  19,942  11,552    5,255    14.30%
HD133  29,272  25,394    7,403    11.93%
HD134  32,928  32,079    7,810    10.73%
HD137  13,183   7,161    4,282    17.39%
HD138  11,813   7,901    3,035    13.34%
HD139  14,426  11,165    3,621    12.40%
HD140   5,797   2,411    1,818    18.13%
HD141   7,965   5,687    3,420    20.03%
HD142   9,533   6,613    3,070    15.98%
HD143   7,091   2,784    2,130    17.74%
HD145  16,267   7,699    4,000    14.30%
HD146  23,173  15,199    5,753    13.04%
HD147  28,968  19,939    6,971    12.48%
HD148  26,125  17,719    5,020    10.27%
HD149  10,261   4,250    3,866    21.04%

Remember that these are city of Houston elections, so only people in the city voted on them. The missing State Rep districts are the ones that are mostly not in Houston, and for the most part had only a handful of votes in them. Again, Prop A was the Renew Houston cleanup measure, which had little to no campaign activity around it, while Prop B was the firefighter pay parity proposal and was higher profile, though not that high profile given the intense interest in and barrage of ads for other races. Here for the first time you might entertain the idea that there’s some merit to the claim that Democratic voters might be more inclined to drop off before they get to the bottom of the ballot than Republican voters. Only HDs 139, 147, and 148 are on the lower end of the undervote spectrum. It’s suggestive, but far from conclusive. Remember, these are non-partisan ballot initiatives, not races between candidates who are clearly identified with political parties. We’ll examine that data in another post. This is also only one year’s worth of data. I may go back and take a closer look at the 2010 Renew Houston and red light camera referenda, but I don’t know how directly comparable they are – there was more attention paid to those two issues, and the political environment was very different. (I am amused to note that the Chron editorial board was blaming straight ticket voting for the demise of red light cameras, because of course straight ticket voting is history’s greatest monster, or something like that.) I’m going to take a closer look at undervoting in judicial races in another post. For now, if one wanted to make a principled and data-driven case that Republicans are more likely to vote all the way down the ballot than Democrats, you might cite the city referenda from this year. It’s one piece of data, but at least it’s something. As you’ll soon see, however, you’re going to need more than this.

HPOU files first Prop B lawsuit

And away we go.

Courthouse officials were scrambling to find a judge Friday afternoon to hear a lawsuit by the Houston Police Officers Union against the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, that seeks an immediate halt to implementation of a voter-approved ballot initiative that would give Houston firefighters “pay parity” to police officers of similar status.

The lawsuit, filed midday Friday in the 234th state district civil court, seeks to block “Proposition B,” arguing it amounts to an unconstitutional amendment to Houston’s charter, and was void from the start. After hearing initial argument by the police union lawyer to put on the brakes, State District Judge Wesley Ward indicated to lawyers he planned to recuse himself and needed to find another judge in the building who could take over.

Ward, a Republican who was voted out last month on the same ballot with Proposition B, reportedly told attorneys in chambers he had a conflict of interest because he planned to join a law firm where one of the attorneys on the case works.

[…]

The 25-page suit argues that the pay-parity charter amendment is unconstitutional because it “is preempted by and directly conflicts” with state law requiring that firefighters be paid to comparable private sector employment, as well as posing an “irreconcilable conflict” with state law because it ties firefighter compensation to those of other public sector employees, and further conflicts with state law because the two professions do not require “the same or similar skills, ability, and training.”

The measure “undermines and interferes with HPOU’s right to collectively bargain, because both HPOU and the City are forced to consider the economic effect of a third-party’s interjecting interests,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that the requirements of Prop B put the HPOU in the position of representing firefighters who had not chosen the union to represent them and who do not have the same responsibilities as police.

The suit also argues that Prop B runs contrary to local government code mandates that say police and fire departments are “separate collective bargaining units unless they voluntarily join together” for collective bargaining with a public employer.

Well, I don’t know what the city’s lawyers will tell them, but clearly HPOU’s attorneys are not hesitating. The ordinance that Council passed to accommodate Prop B is set to take effect on January 1, so I presume the cops are seeking to get a judge to put it on hold pending the litigation. That’s usually the way these things work. We’ll see now if the city joins this lawsuit or files their own; I presume the latter, though most likely in the end the two will be combined. December is already shaping up to be quite the month.

UPDATE: That was quick:

A state district judge Friday evening granted a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment requiring the city of Houston to grant its firefighters “pay parity” with police officers of similar rank and experience.

State District Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins granted the TRO Friday night at the request of the Houston Police Officers Union, which filed a lawsuit earlier in the day against the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. The judge set a hearing for Dec. 14.

The fire union opposed the TRO request, but lawyers for the city did not.

Buckle up, y’all.

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.

Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.

[…]

“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”

[…]

“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Today is election day

It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like forever. From the inbox:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 is Election Day. Voting locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, the County Clerk’s election page, for more information.

“There are four important steps voters should take before heading to the polls,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Go to HarrisVotes.com and look yourself up, study your personal ballot, see where your poll is located, and make sure you have one of the seven acceptable forms of Photo ID.”

At www.HarrisVotes.com, voters can find the answers to their voting questions. The website now provides voters an interactive Google map with directions to their Election Day polling location from the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” page.

“Please study your personal ballot,” urged Stanart. Voters may bring their marked up ballot into the voting booth to expedite the voting process and are strongly encouraged to review their selections before pressing the “cast ballot” button. Be sure you see the waving American Flag before exiting your voting booth. “If you have a question while voting, notify the election official in charge at the poll.”

There is still time to vote.” concluded Harris County Clerk Stanart. “Remember, on Election Day, a voter must vote at the polling location where their precinct is assigned to vote.”

The Election Day polling locations, a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll and information about “curbside voting” can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com. For more information, voters may also call the Harris County Clerk’s election information line at 713.755.6965.

Check the elections page for your own county if you’re not in Harris and you need to know where to go. Remember that if you’re in line by 7PM, you still get to vote. I will be at KTRK doing my thing and probably appearing on camera for thirty seconds at some random time. As for what happens today, well, your guess is as valid as anyone else’s. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, from Derek Ryan:


In case you’re wondering, turnout in 2008 was 8,077,795, in 2012 was 7,993,851, and in 2016 was 8,969,226. So, you know.

And also, because I didn’t see this in time to post it earlier:

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the city council next week to approve a $1.3 million contract with a law firm to represent the city in anticipation of possible litigation over Proposition B, a measure that would grant firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

The contract with Norton Rose Fulbright — which could be approved the day after Tuesday’s general election — would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects; the rest would be set aside for a court fight over pay “parity.”

[…]

The mayor’s office cast the decision as a simple act of preparing for the election.

“The city is seeking outside counsel to review and assess all options in case Proposition B should pass,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said. “It is a prudent course of action.”

I have believed all along that there would be litigation regardless of the outcome, so they may well need to assess their options in the seemingly unlikely event that Prop B fails. Something to look forward to after the election.

Endorsement watch: City propositions

The Chron says Yes on Prop A:

Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “against” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.

That is why Houstonians should vote “for” Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.

A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements.

And No on Prop B:

If Proposition B were a referendum on our love and affection for Houston firefighters, as their union president claims, the choice would be easy. We’d back it. And so would Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was endorsed by firefighters in his mayoral campaign after decades of advocating for them. Instead, the mayor is dipping into his personal campaign funds to fight the measure on which too many influential Houstonians have remained mum.

Voters, don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

In Prop. B, firefighters are asking for more than just appreciation. They’re asking for pay parity with police of comparable rank and seniority. They’re asking for what the mayor says amounts to a 25 percent raise that could cost the city an estimated $100 million the first year, forcing deep cuts to services and nearly 1,000 layoffs of firefighters and police.

Yes, we value firefighters. We value our kids, too. But most of us can’t go out and buy Junior a Lamborghini just because he asks for it.

And we can’t ignore that firefighters’ jobs are different from those of police. Both entail a great deal of risk, but firefighters have long been able to tailor their schedules to accommodate second jobs and businesses. Several Houston firefighters live out of state. And yes, as police point out, firefighters are allotted sleep time during their longer, 24-hour shifts.

Firefighters are asking voters for something police earned through years of hard-fought negotiations that required give and take from both sides.

I still think the ruling against the Renew Houston referendum was a screw job by the Supreme Court, but here we are. You can listen to my interview with Marty Lancton and my interview with Mayor Turner if you want to hear more about Prop B, and in the case of the Mayor, more about Prop A as well.

Interview with Mayor Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

We finish up our interviews for the 2018 election season with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and a conversation about city propositions A and B. Prop A, which has largely flown under the radar, is the update to Renew Houston intended to ratify the “lockbox” structure for the fee revenue. Prop B is of course the firefighter pay parity proposal. You’ve heard my interview with Marty Lancton, so here’s the Mayor’s perspective. The city has a very high-level summary of the two propositions here, and you can find the City Controller’s analysis of the costs embedded in this KUHF story. The firefighters have a response to the city’s cost estimate, a copy of which is here. If you’re wondering what the wording of the two propositions are, here’s a copy of my sample ballot, which was the only place I could find it. Here’s my conversation with Mayor Turner:

And that’s a wrap for interviews for 2018. To review all the ones I’ve done before, visit my 2018 Congressional, 2018 Legislative, 2018 Harris County, and 2018 Judicial pages.

Interview with Marty Lancton

As you know, there are two city ballot propositions for your consideration. The one that has gotten the most attention by far is Proposition B, the firefighters pay parity proposal. I consider it a core function of this blog to present information about local issues, especially when those issues are election-related, so I will have two interviews for you about the propositions, with an emphasis on Prop B. Today I have my conversation with Marty Lancton, the President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, about the proposition and what it would mean for HFD and the city. I’ll have a conversation with Mayor Turner next week. Here’s what Marty Lancton and I talked about:

Apparently, that pay parity debate did happen

I missed the last twist in this saga, but in the end it did happen.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After months of trading barbs from a distance, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of Houston’s firefighters’ union met in a vigorous but civil debate Saturday, displaying their fundamental differences over just about everything related to the November ballot referendum that would grant firefighters pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.

The dispute revolves around a divisive question: If the measure known as Proposition B passes, can the city afford it? If anything, the debate at St. John’s United Methodist Church between Turner and Houston Professional Fire Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton revealed how irreconcilable the opposing views on that question truly are.

From Turner’s perspective, Houston firefighters deserve to receive better pay, but not to the extent that their raises “bankrupt the city,” as he claimed Proposition B would do by mandating 29 percent raises for firefighters, at a cost of than $100 million a year.

What’s more, Turner said Saturday, the measure does not call for true “parity” because it mandates only equal pay, ignoring retirement benefits, training and education requirements — in practice granting firefighters better pay, Turner argued.

To Lancton, the city has balanced its budget on the backs of firefighters to the point that the department’s rank-and-file members are struggling to make ends meet, with salaries far lower than those of firefighters in other Texas cities.

“What Houston firefighters seek is fair, competitive pay. Because of low pay, many Houston-trained firefighters are leaving for other departments,” Lancton said. “Our pay is so low that starting firefighters, supporting families, can even qualify for government assistance. We’ve asked the city for competitive pay for nearly a decade. The city has repeatedly rejected our efforts to reach an acceptable contract agreement.”

It goes from there, and I don’t think there’s much that you haven’t seen if you’ve been following this. At last report, Lancton had pulled out of the debate because the firefighters didn’t want Lisa Falkenberg moderating (because they didn’t like the Chron’s editorial stance against Prop B) and had wanted to address the Democratic precinct chairs in an effort to get Prop B endorsed by the HCDP. Neither of these conditions changed – Falkenberg still moderated, and the HCDP precinct chairs are not getting together for an endorsement vote – so I don’t know what changed from the firefighters’ perspective. Be that as it may, I’m glad this happened – the voters deserved such an event. I wish I could have been there but I was out of town. If you attended or saw a stream of it, please leave a comment with your impressions.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

Town hall meetings for city referenda

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

MAYOR TURNER INVITES CITY RESIDENTS TO TOWN HALL MEETINGS ABOUT THE 2 PROPOSITIONS ON THE NOV. 6 CITY BALLOT

Mayor Turner urges all voters who live in the city to learn about the Rebuild Houston and fire pay referendum elections on the Nov. 6 ballot.

He will host the following meetings from 6:30 7:45 p.m.:

–– Wednesday, Sept. 5 – District C –  Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 1475 West Gray, 77019
–– Monday, Sept. 10  – District H – Moody Park, 3725 Fulton, 77009
–– Wednesday, Sept. 19 – District J – Sharpstown Community Center, 6600 Harbor Town, 77036
–– Thursday, Sept. 20 – District B – Kashmere MSC, 4802 Lockwood, 77026
–– Monday, Sept. 24 – District A – Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road, 77055
–– Wednesday, Oct. 3 – District D – Sunnyside Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 9314 Cullen, 77051
–– Thursday, Oct. 4 – District I – EB Cape Center, 4501 Leeland, 77023
–– Monday, Oct. 8 – District F – Alief Community Center, 11903 Bellaire Blvd., 77072
–– Wednesday, Oct. 17 – District K – Fountain Life Center, 14083 S. Main, 77035
–– Thursday, Oct. 18 – District G, Walnut Bend Recreation Center, 10601 Briar Forest, 77042

Mayor Turner will make the same presentation at District E meetings hosted by Council Member Dave Martin from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

–– Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Kingwood Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Drive, Kingwood 77345
–– Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Space Center Houston, 1601 E. NASA Parkway, Houston 77058

Sorry about the late notice, but this just hit my inbox yesterday, though there was a press release for it last week. Note that the press release I linked to is incorrect about the start date for early voting. It begins October 22, which was correctly noted in the release I got in my mailbox. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of a campaign there is for and against this, but in the meantime there’s this.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Firefighter pay proposal officially on the ballot

As required.

Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.

After weeks of wrangling over the issue — including angry debates, rare legislative maneuvers and allegations of electioneering — the city council voted unanimously Wednesday to place the proposal before voters Nov. 6.

Mayor Sylvester Turner initially gave council the option of scheduling the vote in November 2019 instead, but ultimately pulled that item from the agenda. Still, Turner repeated his concerns about the idea on Wednesday, saying it will cost the city $98 million a year and force layoffs.

The mayor said he intends to host a town hall meeting in each of the 11 council districts before November to educate voters on the issue.

“I don’t have a money-making machine,” Turner said. “I agree they deserve a pay raise, but the question is, what is our ability to pay?”

[…]

Councilman Dwight Boykins was among those who voiced support for the measure, suggesting that the city’s voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues be adjusted to help cover the cost. Boykins also floated the idea of imposing a monthly garbage fee; Houston is the only big city in Texas without one.

Turner and some other council members were, at best, reluctant to embrace those proposals.

Other council members’ concerns took various forms. Councilman Greg Travis suggested the Turner administration and the firefighters were engaged in a game of chicken in which all Houstonians would lose. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig bristled at Turner’s “threats” to cut services if the proposal passes, saying it was a breakdown in contract talks that led the firefighters to push for parity. Councilman Mike Laster, meanwhile, worried the item’s passage would have “serious unintended consequences for firefighters themselves.”

You know the background, but see here for a recent relevant post anyway. I’m going to vote against this, not that it really matters since the inevitable ballot language lawsuit only lacks a plaintiff at this point. I’ll be interested to see who takes what side in this fight – CM Boykins is the first elected official I’ve seen publicly support the idea – and how nasty it gets. Who’s going to run an anti campaign, and who’s going to contribute money to one or the other?I look forward to the 30 day reports. KUHF has more.

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.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

No quorum for very special Council meeting

Close, but no cigar.

A handful of city council members who organized a rare special meeting to push for a Houston firefighters petition seeking pay “parity” with police to appear on the November ballot fell short of a quorum Friday and broke up without a vote.

The resolution they had put forward called on Mayor Sylvester Turner to let the council vote at its meeting next week to place the parity petition on the ballot.

Turner told one council member last Friday that he planned to have that discussion at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but word of that plan had not reached the full council Monday when members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a memo calling the special meeting.

[…]

No more than seven members reached the council chamber Friday morning, two short of the count necessary for a quorum, so Councilwoman Brenda Stardig called off the effort after 15 minutes.

Signatories Travis, Kubosh, Stardig and Boykins were present, though Boykins grew impatient and left. Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le and Dave Martin also were present. Castex-Tatum did not attend.

Martin had said he would skip the gathering, but the New Orleans native acknowledged he showed up in Cajun mode, spoiling for a fight.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. CM Martin did indeed mix it up, getting into squabbles with CMs Travis and Kubosh, which I encourage you to read. If more Council meetings had that kind of entertainment, I’m sure more people would tune in to them. There will be a Budget Committee hearing, followed by a Council vote on August 8, and we’ll have this thing on the November ballot.

A very special Council meeting

Who knew there was such a thing?

In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five city council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.

The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.

In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.

The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval, and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.

Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for Friday at 10 a.m.

Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.

Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.

“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.

[…]

[CM Dave] Martin [who chairs the Council’s budget committee] said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”

It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.

City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.

“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”

Insert shrug emoji here. The petitions were certified in May, and one would think the vote would be in November. According to Mayor Turner’s chief of staff and confirmed by CM Martin, this was to be discussed at the budget committee hearing on July 26, with the item for placing it on the ballot to be on Council’s August 8 agenda. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.

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.

More on the HFD sex discrimination lawsuit

Is anyone surprised that a lot more female firefighters have come forward to describe incidents of harassment at HFD since the initial story was published? Because if you are, I don’t think you’ve been paying much attention to the news over the past year or so.

Nearly 10 years after a sexual harassment scandal roiled the ranks, the Houston Fire Department remains a hostile work environment for some women, according to more than half-dozen current and former firefighters who spoke to the Houston Chronicle about workplace conditions and gender bias.

“It’s still uncomfortable,” said one longtime female HFD veteran, who like most, did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “Houston still has not embraced the diversity of women within the department.”

And while women have made gains since the incidents in 2009 led to a widespread investigation, a Department of Justice lawsuit filed recently against the city has brought renewed scrutiny to gender issues at HFD, where fewer than 4 percent of the department’s 4,000 firefighters are women.

Some women have left the department in frustration. Others stay silent, enduring daily tensions to pursue their lifelong dreams, they told the Chronicle.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said another longtime female firefighter. “Most grin and bear it. They don’t want that label, ‘she’s a problem child,’ or, ‘Don’t say anything around her or she’ll file a grievance.’

“I just want to be treated fair.”

[…]

One aspiring firefighter said she’d always wanted to join the Houston Fire Department.

She put her financial security on hold to go through the months-long academy, earning just $800 every other week. She thought she’d find a teamlike atmosphere but was met instead with instructors who she believed wanted her to fail.

She quit on the verge of graduation and found a better-paying job as a paramedic elsewhere.

“I have no desire to work for a place like that,” said the former trainee, who attended HFD’s academy within the last five years. “I’d rather drive an hour or more to a different fire department where people treat others like human beings, and you don’t get discriminated against because you weren’t born a male.”

Another woman who recently attended the academy described an atmosphere where instructors did not acknowledge women and appeared to purposely sabotage training routines to make it more difficult for them. In one instance, she said, an instructor made her carry a fully charged firehouse into a burning space in a more difficult posture than she’d been trained, and with less line available on the ground.

She’d hoped to find a “family of people that support each other,” but said she was disappointed.

She described a hostile work environment where her male colleagues routinely refer to women as “bitches,” and frequently make derogatory comments after responding to medical calls where the people they were helping were a gay or lesbian, she said.

“I see a lot of sexism and racism,” she said. “It’s really harder being a female in the fire department, point blank … You have this idea how it would be and it’s not like that at all.”

See here for the background, and click over for more, because there is more. This is what I mean when I said there are plenty of people at HFD who know who did what to whom. The higher-ups are all saying the right things – Chief Pena, the union officials, etc – but we need to hear it from the rank and file as well. If HFD wants to rid itself of the “cloud” that persists over it, there needs to be a top-to-bottom commitment to root this kind of behavior out. I guarantee you, HFD knows who the bad actors are. What are they going to do about them?

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims

Yikes.

The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

[…]

Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.