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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?

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 elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

[…]

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

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

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters turn in their petitions

Good for them, but boy is this thing a train wreck.

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall Monday in support of putting a ballot initiative on the November election mandating parity in pay between firefighter and police-officer ranks.

[…]

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday morning. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston fire fighters because the city refuses to do so.”

Former Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman, who is advising the petition effort, said a formal cost estimate of the initiative if approved in November has not been determined.

Using average figures for the cost of police and fire personnel without regard to rank, increasing fire base pay to match that of police would cost roughly $40 million in the current fiscal year. The city finance department projects annual budget deficits of more than $100 million for the next five years.

See here for the background, and a long comment thread. I mean look, this isn’t a proposal right now, it’s an idea. There are literally no details. If one were to run for office on this idea, one would expect to be questioned about basic things, like how much will this cost, and how will the city match job titles across two differently-structured departments. Anyone who provided the answers the firefighters are giving now would not be taken seriously, to put it mildly. In addition, while a candidate for office would have until November to come up with satisfying responses, the firefighters have until the end of August, at which time referendum language would have to be written and approved by City Council.

And what do you think that referendum language might say, based on what we know so far? Think of the recent history of ballot referenda and all the ensuing litigation over said language, and ask yourself if there is any possible wording that will satisfy both the proponents and opponents of this idea. The ballot language lawsuit practically writes itself – it will just be a matter of finding the right taxpayers to serve as plaintiffs. If it is written with sufficient detail to explain how it will be done it will be attacked as too complicated for anyone to understand, and if it is stated simply it will be derided as vague to the point of meaninglessness. This is a bad idea on so many levels, and you can take it to the bank that it will be tied up in court for years to come. The Press has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

Firefighters’ lawsuit over pension reform law tossed

There it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Friday dismissed Houston firefighters’ lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s pension reform package, removing a potential barrier to the city’s efforts to solve a 16-year fiscal crisis.

State District Judge Patricia Kerrigan granted the city’s request to dismiss the case while denying firefighters’ motion to temporarily block the state law, known as SB2190, from going into effect Saturday.

[…]

Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund Chairman David Keller, meanwhile, said he was disappointed, adding that the board would discuss next steps with its legal team.

Kerrigan’s order gives the pension board the option to refile its lawsuit, which argued the reform law infringes on the fund’s exclusive right to select its own actuaries and choose the actuarial assumptions that will be used to determine contributions into the pension system.

See here for the background. I presume this will get appealed, but I kind of doubt it will get anywhere. One may wonder how it is that the relationship between the firefighters, who endorsed Turner for Mayor, and the Mayor has gotten so combative. I suspect it is more likely that the firefighters believed that despite Turner’s promises about pension reform he didn’t really mean to affect their pensions than it is that Turner was dishonest with them about what he intended to do. The firefighters, with some justification, have felt invulnerable for a long time. Having that come crashing down around them has got to be a tough thing to take. One also wonders how much previous Mayors, nearly all of whom have had tumultuous relationships with the firefighters, are getting a bit of grim satisfaction out of this. I mean, if the firefighters had ratified the contract agreement that their leadership agreed to with Mayor Parker in 2014, and if they had worked with Mayor Parker to pass a pension reform plan back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having any of this conversation now. Maybe they wouldn’t be any better off than they are now, but it’s hard to see how it would be any worse for them. I know, hindsight is 20-20, but surely some of this was foreseeable.

Firefighters sue city over contract negotiations

These are busy days for the HPFFA.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s fire union sued the city Wednesday alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to act in good faith during contract negotiations, exacerbating tensions between firefighters and City Hall.

The lawsuit filed in state district court came just two days before firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement with the city expires, at which point local and state law will govern their employment until a new deal is reached.

Those employment terms – unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday morning – are less favorable than those in the evergreen.

Turner said he offered to extend the more generous arrangement another 30 days while negotiations continued, but the fire union preferred to resolve the issue in court.

“When you say no, what do you expect a city to do?” Turner said before council voted to amend local ordinance. “They made their choice.”

A letter provided by the mayor’s office shows the city on May 12 proposed extending the collective bargaining agreement by 15 days. Three days later, firefighters declared an impasse, allowing them to request an arbitrator to settle the contract dispute.

The city declined that option, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said, but agreed to mediation, which began last week.

[…]

South Texas College of Law Houston Professor Richard Carlson said the vagueness of state law makes it difficult to assess firefighters’ chance of success.

“Our law is still very uncertain, and when you throw in the fact that public employees can’t strike anyway, it’s hard to say what the practical outcome in any of these cases is,” Carlson said.

It’s been a busy couple of months for the firefighters, and not in a good way. They lost the fight over the pension reform bill in the Lege, and subsequently filed a lawsuit over it. This fight was over their collective bargaining agreement with the city, which expired three years ago. I’m not exactly sure what they were hoping to accomplish with their negotiating tactics, but it appears they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know what will happen with these lawsuits or the contract talks, but I get the sense that the firefighters have lost some goodwill. It’s more than a little incredible that no one on Council voted against the less-favorable employment terms for them. They’re big players in city elections, so either they now have a lot of former friends or they have a problem of image or communications or something that they might want to consider addressing. I don’t know how to advise them other than to say they ought to give this all some thought. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: The score so far

We’ve had a slew of endorsements for municipal races this past week. I’ve been keeping track of them as best I can on my 2015 Election page. This isn’t always easy to do, because some groups are not very good at posting their endorsements anywhere. I gather, for example, that the HPFFA has made endorsements, based on these tweets, but so far no official list appears to be visible. Groups whose endorsements I have added to the page so far:

AFL-CIO
Houston GLBT Political Caucus
Houston Stonewall Young Democrats
Houston Area Stonewall Democrats
Democracy for Houston
Harris County Tejano Democrats

Log Cabin Republicans
Houston Police Officers Union
Houston Building Owners & Managers Association

I’ve separated the traditionally Democratic/progressive groups from the rest. There are still a lot of groups out there to endorse – HOPE (they have endorsed Sylvester Turner for Mayor but I’ve not seen anything else from them as yet), SEIU, Houston Black American Democrats, Houston Association of Realtors, Houston Contractors Association, the C Club, Texas Organizing Project, and the firefighters if they ever produce a list. Things may change as more endorsements come in, but here are my initial impressions on what we’ve seen so far.

Sylvester Turner has done very well so far. I had thought some endorsing organizations might want to keep their powder dry in this crowded field, but Turner has stood out with his ability to collect support from different groups. Given all the competition for the LGBT group endorsements, snagging two of them is an accomplishment. Stephen Costello nabbed the other two, with the nod from the Stonewall Young Dems being a bit contentious. Adrian Garcia got on the scoreboard with the Tejano Dems; I’m sure that won’t be his last endorsement. Chris Bell has impeccable credentials for some of these groups, but he’s come up empty so far. You have to wonder if they’re getting a little discouraged over there, and you have to wonder if their fundraising is taking a hit. Ben Hall is getting Hotze support; I’ll be interested to see if he buys Gary Polland’s endorsement in the Texas Conservative Review. Will also be interesting to see if a more mainstream group like the C Club throws in with Hall or goes with an establishment choice like Bill King.

My initial reaction to Chris Brown’s dominance in Controller endorsements so far was surprise, but on reflection it all makes sense. He’s really the only viable Democrat running – Carroll Robinson has Hotze taint on him, and Jew Don Boney doesn’t even have a campaign website. Frazer got the Log Cabin Republicans, and I expect him to sweep up the other R-based endorsements. Keep an eye on what the realtors and contractors do in this one, if they get involved at all rather than waiting for the runoff.

Lane Lewis has crushed it so far in At Large #1, not only sweeping the Dem/progressive endorsements over three quality opponents, but also picking up support from the police, firefighters, and BOMA, who didn’t endorse in any of the other three open citywide races. He won’t win any Republican endorsements, of course – I assume new entrant Mike Knox will, if he can get his campaign organized in time to do whatever screenings are needed – but at this point I’d make him a favorite for most of what’s left. Amanda Edwards has impressed in AL4, though Laurie Robinson has split a couple of endorsements with her and will be a threat to win others. Not clear to me who will take the Republican support that’s available.

I expected more of an even fight in the two At Large races with Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents, but so far Doug Peterson and Philippe Nassif have taken them all. As I understand it, Durrel Douglas hasn’t been screening for endorsements – this can be a very time-consuming thing if you are doing a solo campaign – so Nassif has had a clear path and has taken it. As for AL3, I get the impression that Peterson is considered the more viable candidate against CM Kubosh. I though both he and John LaRue were good interview subjects, for what it’s worth. CMs Kubosh and Christie have gotten the “friendly incumbent” endorsements so far, and I expect that will continue. CM David Robinson has gotten those and the Dem/progressive nods. I’ll be interested to see if HBAD backs Andrew Burks; I expect Gary Polland to give Burks some love for being a HERO opponent, but I don’t know if groups like the C Club will join in with that. Burks is doing his usual thing campaign-wise (which is to say, not a whole lot), so anything that requires an organized response is probably beyond his grasp.

Not a whole lot of interest in the District Council and HISD/HCC races. I’m a little surprised that Karla Cisneros hasn’t picked up any endorsements in H, but there’s still time. Ramiro Fonseca has done well against Manuel Rodriguez, who is deservedly paying for the rotten things his campaign did in 2011. Jolanda Jones still has some game. Beyond that, not much to say.

So that’s where things stand now. As I said, they may look very different in a month’s time. And as with fundraising, a good showing in endorsements only means so much. Plenty of candidates who have dominated the endorsement process have fallen short at the ballot box. So consider all this as being for entertainment purposes only, and take it with a handful or two of salt.

UPDATE: Corrected to reflect the fact that HOPE and SEIU are no longer affiliated.

Endorsement watch: Pushback on the process

The early endorsement by the firefighters’ union – and now the Houston Police Officers Union – of Rep. Sylvester Turner for Mayor has ruffled some feathers.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

The Houston Police Officers’ Union on Tuesday followed their firefighter counterparts who on Monday endorsed Turner, a 25-year state representative who long has maintained close ties to first responders. Both organizations said that Turner’s legislative record placed him head and shoulders above his competitors and that the decision to endorse him was easy.

The endorsements arrived as various mayoral campaigns are only beginning to roll out their platforms and before the organizations knew the full field of candidates available to consider. In 2009, the last open mayoral race, the unions only chose to endorse in August. Sometimes, the organizations have made endorsements for a November election as late as September.

The firefighters union endorsement is drawing particular scrutiny because the group did not screen any candidates other than Turner, who brokered a deal this month between the city and the fire pension board that earned plaudits from firefighters.

Scott Wilkey, spokesman for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said a more extensive interview process was unnecessary. Given the public statements of the well-qualified field, Wilkey said, the union already knew the positions of most of the candidates.

“Screening candidates who are on record as hostile to firefighters or who are profoundly ignorant of public safety issues just wastes everyone’s time,” Wilkey said in a statement.

[…]

Asked why former congressman Chris Bell and businessman Marty McVey, who have expressed conceivably less threatening positions on pension reform, were not considered, Wilkey said the union compared “a 25-year history versus a 10-year absence in politics versus a neophyte.”

See here for the background. It’s obvious why the HPFFA did not bother to screen candidates like CM Stephen Costello, CM Oliver Pennington, and Bill King. Everyone knows where each side stands on the single issue that matters the most to the firefighters, so why waste everyone’s time? As for the likes of Chris Bell and Marty McVey, endorsing organizations are free to set their own rules and follow their own procedures. The tradeoff for a streamlined process in this case is the possibility of alienating someone who could have been friendly or at least neutral to you. Now that person’s supporters might be less inclined to listen to you, a non-trivial factor in a race that will surely go to a runoff, and you might wind up with a Mayor you’ve annoyed by your process. You pay your money and you take your chances.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about that other guy?

That process snubbed not only McVey but also Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet announced a mayoral run though people with firsthand knowledge of his plans say he will formally launch his bid in the next few weeks. Garcia, who declined to comment through an adviser, spent 23 years as a Houston police officer.

“Adrian would have been screened Friday if Adrian had announced prior to Friday,” said Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt, who defended the process as thorough and welcoming.

Sources may say that Sheriff Garcia is running for Mayor, but until he himself says it, he’s not a candidate. No organization is going to consider or screen a non-candidate. It happens every two years that some late-entering candidates miss out on endorsements they might have won if they’d been in the race earlier. In this case, the endorsement process was a lot earlier than usual, but them’s the breaks. It’s all part of the process.

Endorsement watch: Firefighters for Turner

From the inbox:

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

HOUSTON, March 23, 2015 – State Rep. Sylvester Turner has earned the endorsement of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association in this year’s mayoral race, the HPFFA said today.

HPFFA President Alvin W. White, Jr. said 84 percent of voting fire fighters approved the recommendation of the HPFFA board of directors to endorse Turner after a review of the public safety records of the mayoral candidates.

“Sylvester has been a consistent friend of fire fighters and an advocate for public safety in Austin for 25 years,” White said. “He is clearly the best choice for us in this mayoral race. We also appreciate that he has built a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, unions and community groups.”

White added, “Rep. Turner understands that Houston fire fighters are delivering excellent service to citizens, are good stewards of city resources, and are giving back to the community. He also has been a sensible voice – here and in Austin – in the debate about city employee pensions.”

Rep. Turner said, “I am proud to have earned the support of Houston’s firefighters. Together, we will work to keep our neighborhoods safe, teach our youth the values of courage and shared sacrifice and show the world that Houston is a place that working families are proud to call home.”

Rep. Turner has served 25 years in the Texas House of Representatives. He is a member of the Legislative Budget Board; Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Chair of the Subcommittee on Articles 1, 4 and 5 (General Government, Judiciary, Public Safety and Criminal Justice); and the House State Affairs Committee.

Born in the Acres Homes community of northwest Houston, Rep. Turner graduated from Klein High School, where he was valedictorian and student body president. He then attended the University of Houston and Harvard Law School. More information is available at www.sylvesterturner.com.

The press release is here, for when I get around to creating a 2015 Election page. I’m not going to note every endorsement that comes my way, but this one was of interest for two reasons. One is that it happened at all, especially this early on. I figure a lot of endorsing organizations are going to take their time – at the very least, until they’re sure if Adrian Garcia is in the race or not – and many may keep their powder dry till the runoff, since Lord only knows who might make it that far. The other is that it wasn’t clear early on who if anyone would be the firefighters’ preferred candidate, given the intense focus by several campaigns on the pension issue. Once the pension deal was announced that sort of settled that matter, but for awhile there it was not obvious.

This is a nice get for Turner, since every inch is going to count in a race where the difference between making the runoff and being a runnerup is likely to be small. That said, the firefighters’ record in recent Mayoral elections is not that great. They endorsed Gene Locke in 2009, Fernando Herrera in 2011, and Ben Hall in 2013; going back a bit more, they backed Orlando Sanchez in 2003. We’ll see if they have better luck this time.

Council meeting called to discuss firefighter pension deal

Some Council members are determined to discuss the deal Mayor Parker made with the firefighters’ pension fund.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Four City Council members have taken advantage of a rarely used provision in city law to call a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighter pension board that was announced last week.

Typically, the mayor alone controls what items appear on the council agenda to be voted on, a power that can be subverted only when a trio of council members teams up to call a meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did so Monday morning, with one more signer than was required. City officials said this appears to be the first time the legal maneuver has been used in Parker’s more than five-year tenure.

It’s not clear whether enough of the foursome’s colleagues will attend to muster a quorum, but the symbolism of the meeting is more significant than any action that could be taken, given that the group will simply consider registering support for or opposition to the pension deal.

Regardless, Parker’s liaison to council, William-Paul Thomas, said he will work against a quorum. Parker had said she would not put the deal to a council vote because it does not call for the expenditure of city funds.

The three-year agreement would see the city pay a projected $77 million less into the pension fund and see firefighters contribute an estimated $20 million more. Supporters call it a compromise that will free up city funds during a budget crunch, while critics call it a risky missed opportunity that will see $57 million less paid into the system without any changes to the cost of benefits.

Bradford said the aim of Friday’s meeting is for council to discuss the pension deal openly and to send a signal to Austin on the council’s view of the agreement. Firefighters’ pension benefits and the city’s contributions to the fund are controlled by the Legislature, and the mayor’s deal would need to pass in Austin to take effect.

[…]

Firefighters union president Alvin White – whose organization is a separate entity from the fire pension board – early Monday raised his own concerns, saying the union “is the only legally recognized entity authorized to negotiate Houston firefighters’ workplace rights, wages and benefits.” White said he was entering into talks with fire pension chairman Todd Clark to “protect our members’ rights” in the deal, which requires firefighters to contribute 12 percent of their pay toward their pensions, up from 9 percent today.

Those talks yielded progress Monday night, however, with White saying the resolution would allow the union the flexibility it needs to negotiate future contracts. Clark did not return a call for comment Monday; a pension spokeswoman said he was busy working to get the bill filed at the Legislature.

See here for the background. At least this gives me some idea what the fuss is about, since the net effect is that the fund will receive $57 million less in payments over the next three years. The fund is in good enough shape that these underpayments probably won’t cause any issues, but for obvious reasons this is not a sustainable approach. I don’t know what these members have in mind to discuss or what if anything they might be able to accomplish, but I see no reason not to let them have their meeting. Maybe they’ll come up with some good questions to ask, or maybe they’ll agree with the Mayor’s judgment. Let them meet and make up their own minds. Campos has more.

At an impasse

Doesn’t look like there will be any new collective bargaining agreement between the city and the firefighters this year.

Houston’s firefighters union declared an impasse with the city over a new labor contract, which a union negotiator called a “slap in the face” on Thursday.

The deadlock comes less than a month after Mayor Annise Parker announced the union was coming back to the bargaining table despite overwhelmingly defeating the city’s last proposal.

That rejected contract would have given the firefighters a 4 percent raise starting in 2015 but limited when they could take time off. City officials came back Thursday with essentially the same offer, but dropped the 4 percent raise to 3 percent. That’s likely because council members amended Parker’s budget, which set aside money for the proposed contract and effectively “spent the raise.”

“So now I’m looking at a 3 percent offer that reduces the cap on holidays, reduces the cap on vacations and I’m not supposed to take that, or have these members take that, as, in essence, a slap in the face,” union negotiator Michelle Bohreer said.

[…]

The city has looked to scale back overtime costs, which earlier this year almost drove the department over budget. During the budget crisis, HFD had to pull ambulances and engines from duty some days to keep costs down.

A March contract temporarily resolved that problem, with firefighters agreeing to give up some freedom to take time off in exchange for a 2 percent raise and a $975 lump-sum payment. Those scheduling restrictions expired at the end of June.

See here, here, here, and here for the background; Mayor Parker’s statement is here. The city has a legitimate interest in managing vacation time and overtime pay, as any private sector business would have. By the same token, I understand why the firefighters would be reluctant to give up something that they now have. Given the current budget situation and the overwhelming rejection of the first agreement, I have no idea how much room there is to negotiate at this point. The one thing I am sure of is that all this will be a prominent feature in the 2015 Mayoral race. It will be very interesting to see which candidates stake out which positions.

Back to the drawing board for the city and the firefighters’ union

Don’t expect much at this point.

Negotiators for the city of Houston and its firefighters union will return to the bargaining table to discuss a new labor contract weeks after union members soundly defeated the last proposed deal, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.

The mayor and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Bryan Sky-Eagle had said after the vote – which saw 93 percent of members opposed – that both sides were open to more talks, but it’s unclear whether a deal acceptable to the union can be reached.

“It is encouraging that the union is willing to resume negotiations,” Parker said in a release. “We will bargain in good faith, but crafting an alternative agreement will require creativity and flexibility now that City Council has approved a new city budget that utilizes all available resources.”

In other words, officials have said, the council amended Parker’s proposed budget to add a series of spending items that “spent the raise” that had been set aside to accommodate the proposed contract. The rejected deal would have given firefighters a 4 percent raise beginning Jan. 1 in exchange for restrictions on when they could take time off.

See here and here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The most likely outcome at this point is that the firefighters will continue under the current agreement, which provides no raises but also puts no restrictions on who can take vacation when, until 2016, when the firefighters hope there is a Mayor they believe to be friendlier to their interests in office. It’ll be interesting to see who positions himself or herself as their champion in the race. Houston Politics has more.

Firefighters union rejects contract deal

Oops.

The contract rejected Tuesday by 93 percent of the roughly 2,900 firefighters voting would have taken a similar approach, granting a pay raise in exchange for concessions on members’ ability to take leave. With the no vote, as of July 1 members of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 enter an “evergreen” period under their prior contract that would run through 2016 unless a new agreement is approved.

The evergreen situation would provide no raises, but imposes few effective caps on how many firefighters can take time off, raising questions about whether the department’s proposed $507 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes enough money to cover overtime costs, and whether HFD will repeat the fiscal woes of recent months.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a resounding statement that the firefighters are together on this. That the concessions are too high, that giving back was enough,” said fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle, whose team negotiated the deal. “I’m very optimistic we’ll go back to the table and find out what went wrong and try to fix it.”

Parker said the city is willing to return to the bargaining table. She said it is far from clear, however, that the union will be able to win more favorable terms from a city council that opposed hiking HFD’s overtime budget earlier this year and is poised to vote Wednesday on several items that would cut her proposed $2.4 billion general fund budget.

“If they want to come back with the idea of significant pay raises in the next year, I’m just going to have to say it will be seriously impacted by what Council does, and my sense of the mood of Council is they’re not wanting to put a whole lot more money in the budget,” the mayor said.

See here for the background. Sky-Eagle negotiated the deal with the city, so I can only wonder where the disconnect was. The issues with overtime are real and not going anywhere on their own, so one way or another this is going to have to be dealt with. I presume they’ll figure it out eventually. The Chron editorial board has more.

City reaches contract agreement with firefighters

Give a little, get a little.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston firefighters would give up some of their ability to schedule time off in return for a pay hike under a tentative new labor contract that city officials hope will enable them to rein in overtime costs that threatened to bust the fire department’s budget this year.

The City Council and the membership of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 must ratify the agreement for it to take effect as planned on July 1.

The agreement, which includes a 4 percent raise, comes on the heels of a budget crisis that has seen the department, on some days, pull ambulances and fire trucks from the streets in recent months to control a spike in overtime costs.

[…]

Firefighters would get the 4 percent raise beginning Jan. 1, 2015, along with new terms encouraging them not to miss work, which often creates the need for shifts to be filled on short notice by replacements on overtime pay.

“Neither of us is really excited about what’s in the contract, but it moves us forward,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It’s a workable arrangement. Neither side got everything they wanted.”

The deal would run through the end of 2016, though negotiations could reopen in February 2016 on pay and some scheduling items. The idea behind that option, City Attorney David Feldman said, is to see whether voters amend a decade-old cap on city revenue that Parker has said will force layoffs next year if left unaltered. The deal would last only 30 months because of these uncertainties, Parker said.

Fire union President Bryan Sky-Eagle said the raise is not what firefighters deserve, but he said the union acknowledges a need to work with the city given its revenue limitations.

The contract, Sky-Eagle added, also allows for more flexible scheduling, improves a voucher program by which firefighters buy uniforms and equipment, and secures city promises not to hand its emergency medical service over to private firms or to replace the firefighters running it with civilians.

“Am I going to say it’s the best deal for firemen? No. But am I going to say it’s the best deal we can get under this mayor, this administration? It’s about as fair as you can get,” Sky-Eagle said. “The incentive programs we have in place, we think they will work. We wouldn’t have signed off on this contract if we didn’t want to give them a shot because there’s some tangible benefits for the firefighters.”

The Mayor’s press release on this is here. Seems like a reasonable deal to me, and if it avoids all the overtime problems, so much the better.

Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston fire pension board, opposes the deal. The board and the union are separate, but historically, the union contract has allowed the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund chairman to be assigned full time to the pension office while drawing a city salary via the fire department.

That “special assignment” – at Parker’s insistence, Sky-Eagle and Clark said – has been dropped in the proposal. Deluca said the change means Clark would report to work at a fire station. Clark said he will do so, while doing pension work on his days off – if the agreement passes.

“By removing me, it gives the pension enemies – for instance Mayor Parker – an advantage on making changes to our plan,” Clark said. “She doesn’t want me here because I’ve worked the last two legislative sessions and defended and protected the fund from her attacks. What this is, is retaliatory in nature.”

Whether one sees this as a brilliant piece of political strategy by the Mayor or a total jerk move likely depends on one’s opinion about the pension issue. The calculation is left as an exercise for the reader.

Fearing the fire reform

This ought to be interesting.

Rumblings of coming reforms in Houston Fire Department’s operations have union leaders and the department’s command staff wary, despite Mayor Annise Parker’s insistence that these concerns are unwarranted.

HFD’s staffing shortage has driven up overtime costs, creating a budget crisis that has, on some days, seen ambulances and fire trucks pulled from service. These budget discussions have dominated City Hall in recent weeks, leading the mayor and some council members to question whether the department’s $450 million budget could be spent more efficiently.

Parker, for instance, said she questions whether the city should invest in more ambulances and fewer new fire trucks, given that 85 percent of HFD’s calls are medical emergencies and that fire trucks are more expensive to purchase, staff and maintain. She also wonders whether the city is “oversaturated” in the way it places its 103 fire stations and deploys its 216-vehicle fleet.

The mayor is adamant, however, that she will not pursue reforms without a planned third-party study of HFD’s operations that is months away.

“Let me say this for about the 15th time publicly: I am not interested in splitting fire and EMS, nor am I interested in privatizing our EMS service in the city of Houston,” Parker said. “Are we clear? People make stuff up all the time. It’s just amazing.”

Most of the concern centers on the upcoming utilization study for the fire department, and a recent reorganization that has “HFD” and “EMS” reporting to different people. The firefighters’ union is worried that despite the Mayor’s insistence that it won’t happen, fire and EMS will be split into two distinct groups, with EMS workers being separate from the firefighters’ pension plan. The study is still several months away from beginning, and who knows what it will eventually conclude, but I think it’s safe to say there will be resistance to any recommendations of big changes. The early returns are quite revealing:

[HFD Chief Terry] Garrison and [HPFFA President Bryan] Sky-Eagle each said they would not fight the third-party study Parker wants as long as their input is welcomed. But some council members questioned whether the reforms such a study might recommend could be implemented.

Even idling a few trucks has affected the public’s perception of their safety, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

“Can you imagine if we said we’re going to start shutting down stations?” he said. “That’s a huge monster to undertake.”

Councilman Dave Martin was blunter.

“The council member is going to go crazy, the citizens are going to go crazy and World War III is going to break out,” he said. “I’d bet my last nickel it’s not going to be able to happen.”

I’ll be blunt as well. I’ve conducted over 100 interviews with Council candidates since 2007. Pretty much every one of them says something to the effect of how the city needs to be more efficient, to do more with less, to find new ways to deliver services in a cost-effective manner – you get the idea. Everyone wants the city to live within its budget and not raise taxes while doing all the things the city needs to do. Well, public safety is the majority of the budget, and if we can’t even talk about how they’re spending that money – if we can’t “look for efficiencies” and all those other cliches in that part of the budget – then we’re just chanting mantras about the budget and how we manage it. I’m not saying we have to accept any of the recommendations that the study will eventually make – for any number of valid reasons, we may find those recommendations to be unsuitable – but I am saying we need to keep an open mind. Change is always hard, but if it makes sense we ought to at least consider it.

Firefighters union ratifies no-brownout agreement

Good.

Members of the Houston firefighters’ union have signed off on a deal with Mayor Annise Parker that would prevent pulling firetrucks from service to help balance the Fire Department’s budget.

“We’re very pleased that the union membership ratified the agreement,” Houston City Attorney David M. Feldman said in a statement released Friday.

Now that the deal has been approved by rank-and-file members of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, it’s up to Houston City Council members to vote on it. Feldman said they will take it up on Wednesday.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Council fails to approve this.

HFD union reaches a deal with the city to avoid “rolling brownouts”

From the Inbox:

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA) President Bryan Sky-Eagle joined Mayor Annise Parker this morning to announce a tentative agreement on an interim contract that will avoid the brown-outs of fire apparatus proposed earlier to solve an $8.5 million overtime shortfall at the Houston Fire Department.

“I want to thank the union for working with us to help find a solution for this situation,” said Mayor Parker.  “This is an example of what can happen when both sides are willing to negotiate in good faith.  Through productive give-and-take we were able to develop a short-term agreement that will be beneficial to the rank and file while also allowing us to deal with the overtime issue and avoid the need for idling any of our fire trucks.”

The interim pact, which still needs to be voted on by City Council and the union membership, calls for elimination of guaranteed holidays through June 30, 2014 and other changes designed to control overtime costs going forward.  In addition, based on a Fiscal Year 2014 wage reopener clause in the existing 2011 contract, firefighters will receive a two-percent across-the-board pay increase and a one-time uniform allowance with a total value of $3.64 million.  The city is agreeing to keep all fire trucks in service, provided that the two-week average of unscheduled absences does not exceed 35 members per day.  Should this two-week average be exceeded, the city reserves the right to remove units from service. Daily staffing levels will also determine whether the seven ambulances removed from service on February 25, 2014 will be placed back in service or remain idled every day through the end of the fiscal year.

“We are showing good faith with this pay raise and commitment to keeping apparatus in service,” said Parker. “I am asking the fire fighters out in the field to also show good faith by showing up for work, as scheduled.”

When asked about the interim agreement, Sky-Eagle said, “This is a win for the citizens of Houston and the firefighters are proud to work with Chief Garrison and the mayor to stop any further EMS units and fire apparatus from being removed from service.” Sky-Eagle stated, “End of the day, the firefighters knew that public and firefighter safety was more important than the timing of receiving benefits we had earned,” referring to the push of a uniform allowance into Fiscal Year 2015, freeing up authorized money for use in staffing apparatus.

The interim agreement also includes the following provisions:

  • An improved work schedule program will continue to be developed and will be implemented in the first full pay period following July 1, 2014
  • A four-year payout, instead of a lump sum termination payment, for retiring firefighters, at least through the remainder of FY14
  • An agreement by both parties that a future collective bargaining agreement will include the elimination of the District Vacation Bank concept beginning with the vacation scheduling for 2015
  • A five percent cap on guaranteed holidays from July 1, 2014 to the end of the future collective bargaining agreement the two sides anticipate reaching

Subject to expedited approval by the rank and file and City Council, the interim agreement will be in effect through the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2014.  In the meantime, negotiations will continue on a new three-year contract that would be effective July 1, 2014.  Both sides are pledging to continue good faith progress on wages, incentives and other staffing proposals that will reduce the possibility of another overtime crisis.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad they got this worked out. I doubt anyone wanted the “rolling brownouts” to happen, but there had to be some way of ensuring enough non-overtime coverage so the budget wouldn’t get blown. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Firefighters union sues city to block cutbacks

Not sure about this.

Houston firefighters went to court Tuesday in an effort to block the city from removing personnel, trucks and ambulances from service. But a judge rejected their argument that the “rolling brownouts” plan violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city.

State District Judge Elaine Palmer turned down the request for a temporary restraining order and ordered a follow-up hearing for March 7 to weigh the merits of a permanent injunction.

Fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle said he filed the order “as a pre-emptive strike” to protect people and firefighters from the consequences of idling even more units. He argued that the purpose of the collective bargaining agreement is safety and that removing units from service undermines that.

“Once you start unilaterally making those changes, whatever the motivation may be – budgetary or political or otherwise – you start losing the intent,” Sky-Eagle said before the hearing.

City Attorney David Feldman argued at the hearing that what units are placed in service at what times is a management decision that is the city’s right to make. “The fact is, the union can’t run the fire department. The city’s got to run the fire department,” Feldman said before the hearing. “I disagree with them, obviously, as to whether there is a contractual right to have a certain number of units in service. It’s a management right, because you’ve got to deal with the resources available.”

See here for the background. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t see how this belongs in a courtroom. It’s a pretty standard budget dispute, at least as I see it. Mayor Parker said in a press release that the same kind of cutbacks were made in 2010 during the budget crunch without any objections from the union. The lack of an TRO suggests to me that the city will prevail here, but we’ll see. Texpatriate has more.

City sues HFRRF again

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In the face of growing concern about its ability to meet long-term retiree pension obligations, the City of Houston filed a lawsuit today against the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF), one of three pension systems covering City employees. The lawsuit seeks to enable the City to have the same input on contributions and plan design for HFRRF that it already has with the Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS) and the Houston Municipal Employee Pension System (HMEPS).

“State law that applies only to Houston is unreasonably restricting our ability to protect taxpayers and keep our commitment to secure and sustainable firefighter retirement benefits,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “It is clear from the difficulties experienced by other cities that this is an issue that must be addressed. We have to have the ability to negotiate these benefits at the local level and be able to verify the financial health of HFRRF. We cannot and will not kick the can down the road.”

Through the “meet and confer” process with HPOPS and HMEPS, the City is already able to negotiate employee contributions, retirement ages and benefit levels for police and municipal retirees. In the past, these negotiations have resulted in agreements that have improved the city’s ability to meet its long-term obligations for these two pension systems. Under existing state law, there is no similar process available for the firefighter pension system. Contrary to the laws that apply to other cities, Houston is excluded from the important financial decisions about benefit levels and the contributions to support those benefits for its firefighter retirees. These decisions are made by boards controlled by current and retired firefighters who have an obvious conflict of interest. Several attempts to obtain a legislative cure for this problem have been unsuccessful.

“Litigation is the only remaining option available to the City,” said City Attorney David Feldman. “Instead of Houston determining, or even having a meaningful say about the level of its own contributions to HFRRF, that decision is being made by people likely to benefit from the decision. The City is asking the court to declare unconstitutional the laws that allowed this. The suit also seeks to end the practice of HFRRF using taxpayer money to lobby in favor of such laws.”

Firefighters retiring with 30 years of service are currently eligible for an average initial monthly lifetime annuity of 94 percent of their average pre-retirement salary, plus an average estimate lump sum of approximately $850,000. The value of the average combined benefits for these retirees is estimated to be $1.6 million, which is equal to a lifetime monthly annuity of 197 percent of their average pre-retirement salary.

The City’s lawsuit does not seek any change in benefits being paid to current firefighter retirees, nor would it have any impact on HPOPS or HMEPS.

The press release is here, and a copy of the lawsuit is here. As you might imagine, the HFFRF did not take this lying down. I’ve put a copy of their press release beneath the fold, but here’s a quote:

The leadership of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund say the lawsuit filed today by Mayor Parker is nothing more than a power-grab and publicity stunt. The lawsuit is characterized as a political tactic aimed at attacking and hurting elderly and disabled firefighters and their families.

“The Texas constitution and statues that govern our plan have been in place since 1937, and has served our firefighters for over 75 years, and now according to Parker, our plan is all of a sudden unconstitutional,” says pension fund chairman Todd Clark. “Texas legislators have been supportive of our profession and have been the key decision makers in the protection of our plan.”

The Chron story has more reaction from the firefighters, including the president of the HPFFA, who among other things expressed surprise at the timing since the union is currently in negotiations with the city. I’d say if there’s one thing that Mayor Parker and the HFFRF agree on, it’s that the Legislature, in particular the Houston-area delegation, has been squarely on the side of the firefighters all along.

Anyway. The city had previously sued the HFFRF to get more access to their books, and won a ruling a few months later. This is a much bigger can of worms, as the city is seeking to do via the courts what it has been unable to do via the Legislature, which is get more control over how the pension fund operates. If you go back to the interview I did with Mayor Parker before last year’s election, she talked about what she wants the city to get. Skip to 8:54 for the start of the discussion about pensions, and 12:18 for the direct question about what she wants; basically, it’s to allow a defined-contribution option as an alternative for those who want it, and to make annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) discretionary rather than mandatory. She does allude to some other changes she might pursue specifically for the firefighters’ pension, and I’m quite sure a change to the deferred retirement option (DROP) program would be on that list. You can also listen to the interview I did with Todd Clark and Chris Gonzalez last January if you want the opposing view. These things have all been points of contention for a long time, and in fact COLAs and DROP are both specified in the lawsuit. The city’s argument is that state laws regarding this pension only apply to Houston, and that is unconstitutional. They seek to overturn the Houston-specific laws so that the remaining state laws apply to Houston as well. We’ll see how it goes. Texpatriate has more.

(more…)

Endorsement watch: SEIU and HAR

This came in on Thursday:

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Texas, including janitors who clean office buildings, housekeeping workers at GRB and food service workers, have endorsed Mayor Annise Parker for re-election. Houston members have also launched an effort to outreach to Latino and African American voters in their neighborhoods. Mayor Parker’s commitment to creating quality family-sustaining jobs makes her the best candidate for Houston’s working families.

“We are one of the most diverse cities in the nation and that makes us stronger. Mayor Parker understands this, that’s why she’s fought to build a city economy that works for everyone. When my fellow janitors and I went on strike last summer, her leadership helped bring about a resolution that is helping to build a path out poverty for thousands of Houston’s families, including my own,” said Houston janitor and SEIU Texas member Yesenia Romero.

In her first two terms, Mayor Parker advanced her mission to make Houston a great place to raise a family by supporting janitors’ efforts to raise wages, creating fair standards for employees who provide city services and holding irresponsible businesses accountable.

“I am proud to stand with Houston’s janitors, housekeeping and food service workers as we join together to make our city a better place to live for all Houstonians,” said Mayor Parker. “Working families helped lift Houston out of the recession – and together, we’re continuing to build a future for Houston’s children with more good jobs, safer neighborhoods and stronger schools. Thank you, SEIU, for your endorsement and support.”

During a press conference attended by Mayor Parker, members committed to turn their support into action in their communities. In the coming weeks, volunteers will generate support from neighbors, family members and fellow members to join Mayor Parker’s mission to build an economy that works for all.

SEIU endorsed a full slate of candidates, and you can see that reflected on my 2013 Election page. I have a continuation of my rant about how hard it is to get this information from some endorsing organizations to make in a bit, but first here’s the slate from the Houston Association of Realtors that I’ve been waiting for. From the press release:

— The Houston Association of REALTORS announced its decision to support the following candidates in the Tuesday, November 5 City of Houston Elections:

Mayor – Annise Parker*

District A – Helena Brown*

District B – Jerry Davis*

District C – Ellen Cohen*

District D – Dwight Boykins

District E – Dave Martin*

District F – Al Hoang*

District G – Oliver Pennington*

District H – Ed Gonzalez*

District J – Mike Laster*

District K – Larry Green*

At-Large 1 – Stephen Costello*

At-Large 4 – C.O. “Brad” Bradford*

At-Large 5 – Jack Christie*

*indicates incumbent

“Houston’s economy is thriving, and the real estate market is at its strongest position in decades. REALTORS and homeowners owe much of this to sound fiscal policy, and a Mayoral administration that promotes responsible commercial and residential growth,” said HAR Political Affairs Advisory Group Chair Nancy Furst of The Furst Group. “HAR is proud to have a very positive working relationship with Houston City Council, and we look forward to working with our supported candidates for the next two years of their service on City Council.”

Of interest is their backing of CM Helena Brown in District A. It’s striking because they could have easily waited till the runoff to pick a side in that multi-candidate race, and of course because former CM Brenda Stardig is herself a realtor who had their support in each of the last two elections. HAR generally sticks with incumbents, so in that sense it’s not too surprising, but still. That’s got to sting a little for Stardig, and it’s a big get for Brown. Both sets of endorsements, along with a set from the Greater Houston Restaurant Association and an updated list from the Harris County Tejano Democrats are on the 2013 Elections page. Ben Hall also picked up endorsements from the Baptist Ministers Association and the Harris County Republicans, which describes itself as “a General Purpose Committee PAC that is dedicated to increasing Republican turnout in Harris County elections”. They will be mailing out their slate of endorsed candidates to Republican voters, but I don’t have that slate at this time, nor do I know if the Baptist Ministers Association has endorsed anyone else, so those are not on the page yet. When and if I get a release or a link with a full list of their endorsed candidates, I will add them.

As for the rant, I was all set to grouse about the HCTJs, as I had heard about their updated list from a couple of the candidates on it but had not gotten it from them before yesterday, then they went and took the wind out of my sails. And good for them for doing so! There are still plenty of others to find fault with. The C Club – I’m interested in Republican-friendly endorsements, too – has one Endorsed Candidates link on their webpage that takes you to a members login screen, and another Endorsed Candidates link that gives their slate for Lone Star College Trustees from May. The last endorsements I can find for the HPOU are from 2010; I even sent an email two weeks ago to info@hpou.org asking for their slate, but have not received a response. The HPFFA has endorsed multiple candidates, but the only ones you can find out about on their website are Ben Hall and Roland Chavez. A lot of other endorsing organization are PACs, and you can learn about their preferences via candidate finance reports, but they all have webpages and/or Facebook pages, none of which carry this information. I continue to have no idea why they all make this so difficult. Why bother to endorse candidates if it’s nigh impossible for actual voters to learn who you’ve endorsed? What am I missing here?

Anyway. This is all a reminder that the endorsements I list on my 2013 Elections page are as best I can determine. If you know of a set of endorsements I’ve missed, and can send me a press release or a link to them, please do so. If you can explain why so many endorsed slates are shrouded in secrecy, please do that, too. Thanks.

Hall and the firefighters

Ben Hall has the support of the firefighters’ union. He has also criticized Mayor Parker for not doing enough to deal with the financial stability of the pension funds. How does he reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions? Not surprisingly, he’s light on the details.

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

The fire union’s endorsement puts Hall in a political pickle. He likely cannot avoid talking about pensions, which some City Council members say is the top financial issue facing the city. Yet, he also cannot discuss the topic in a way that risks upsetting some of his most important supporters.

Hall’s campaign website is silent on pensions, but he has not skirted the issue. Asked to elaborate on what Parker is “hiding” about the city’s finances, a charge Hall made in his first TV ad, his spokesman replied, in part, “Our looming pension liabilities are real. What is Parker doing to address them before it is too late?”

Even as he accepted the fire union’s endorsement, Hall added a note of restraint, twice saying “we may not agree on all things.”

[…]

Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Fund, said he has not spoken to Hall about pensions and is not aware of any proposal the candidate has made.

Hall has spoken of a more creative approach to pensions, such as dividing the 30-year liability into decades and buying insurance to cover the last decade. His press secretary, Julia Smekalina, said several options are being discussed along the lines of dividing the pool of pensioners into groups based on the projected cost of their benefits. Hall was not available for comment Wednesday.

“Ben Hall is proud to be endorsed by Houston firefighters and is committed to constructive dialogue on a variety of issues, including employee pensions,” Smekalina said. “Ben Hall is committed to finding pension solutions that sensibly maintain city fiscal health, while honoring promises to employees and retirees.”

Representatives of the National Institute for Retirement Security, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Security at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School said that while Hall’s proposal lacked details, they knew of no examples of the idea being used in public pensions.

Parker campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said Hall’s solution shows he has not done his homework.

“There is no silver bullet – the math is the math. Several years of poor market conditions and the fact that the workforce is living longer have created this problem,” Davis said. “That’s why Mayor Parker has taken a thoughtful approach, pressing the Legislature for local control and negotiating with stakeholders for a balanced solution that protects both employees and taxpayers.”

It should be noted that the firefighters’ pension fund disputes the assertion that it is insufficiently funded or that the city’s future obligations represent a crisis, so it would have been perfectly consistent for Hall to argue that Mayor Parker has misrepresented and overstated the issue. He has not chosen that path. It should also be noted that this problem has been caused in part by the city underpaying the three pension funds in recent years, for a variety of reasons. It would therefore also be consistent for Hall to say that the city needs to honor its obligations, and if that means raising more revenue here and/or cutting expenditures there to pay for it, then so be it. Again, Hall has not chosen that path. Maybe there’s another path that’s consistent with what the firefighters want, I don’t know. Maybe someday Hall will tell us.

The Chron continues to rage against the pensions

Hobby horse mounted, away we go!

There is something particularly frustrating about municipal pensions, which are funded by the city but controlled by the state. This is a recipe for disaster, which can be seen in ballooning burdens to the budget that undercut investments in our city. To her credit, Parker spent some time at the state Legislature to try to force the firefighters pension to the negotiating table. But the approach of campaign season, and the specter of attack ads, seemed to scare her away from the topic far too early. Rather than an excuse to ignore this issue, an election should be the very vehicle by which politicians bring these long-term concerns to the public. After all, no mayor will be able to accomplish any of their goals if half of the city budget is being eaten up by pension obligations, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading.

Vader

I just want to know one thing: Has everyone on the Chron’s editorial board forgotten about the two editorials they wrote in February and March that took every member of the Houston legislative delegation – including about a dozen legislators who represent at most a handful of Houston residents – to task for failing to file a bill that would address the pension issue the way they want it to be addressed? They start out in this piece recognizing that only the Legislature can do something about this, then they castigate the Mayor for the failure. What’s up with that?

One could argue that the Mayor did an insufficient job lobbying the delegation to file and push a bill. What this fails to include any mention of what exactly the Chron thinks the Mayor should have done but did not do to get the Lege to do what they want. Just as President Obama has little if any influence over Congressional Republicans to enact or even vote on legislation he wants, Mayor Parker has basically no leverage over area legislators. What would they have her do? Invite them over for tea and crumpets? Fund primary challengers against them? Hire goons to break kneecaps as needed? Tell me what strategy she should have employed, then we can talk about how well or poorly she executed said strategy. Otherwise, what are we even talking about?

Perhaps Mayor Parker did drop the ball on lobbying the Lege. Perhaps she decided that she would never get anywhere on this issue and so decided instead to pursue other issues with them rather than risk damaging existing relations over a no-win issue. Perhaps she decided that the firefighters’ pension fund wasn’t such a big honking crisis after all. As I have noted before, it is within the Chron’s capabilities to pursue answers to these questions rather than idly wonder about them on their editorial pages.

Again, it must be noted that just because the Chron considers the firefighters’ pension issue to be the Number One concern of our time doesn’t mean that it actually is. The firefighters themselves certainly argue forcefully otherwise. Whoever you agree with, the firefighters get to have a say in this as well. They’re entitled to make their case to the same legislators that the Chron wants the Mayor to browbeat. Maybe, just maybe, they have the better of the argument, or maybe they just have more direct influence over the legislators. It may be this is a fight that no Mayor could win. If so, then Mayor Parker was right to let it go, if indeed she did. Maybe the Chron should consider that possibility as well.

Endorsement watch: The firefighters still don’t like the Mayor

Last week, the Ben Hall campaign teased on its Facebook page that it was about to get a “game-changer” endorsement. This week, that endorsement was announced.

Ben Hall

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association announced they will be endorsing Ben Hall in his challenge to incumbent Mayor Annise Parker in this year’s mayoral campaign. This comes well after the Houston Police Officers’ Union endorsed the incumbent mayor back in March and just weeks after a fire that killed more firefighters than any single incident in Houston history.

Despite the fact that both organizations represent those who protect and serve the community, it is not surprising to see the HPOU and the HPFFA supporting different local candidates. It has happened numerous times in the past and usually has to do with how the current regime has supported both organizations. In this case, firefighters clearly believe Mayor Parker has not provided the department with the kind of support they need.

[…]

Hall was a city attorney and he seems to be fairly well organized with a good coalition of backers, but his challenge of the mayor is likely a long shot, as with most incumbents, particularly ones who were in office during an economic upswing. But the endorsement of the firefighters will no doubt help Hall boost his chances.

Perhaps. Generally speaking with endorsements, it’s better to have them than not to have them. However, a “game-changer” to me is one that is unexpected, particularly if the endorser in question had previously supported the other candidate, or otherwise would not have been expected to make this endorsement. That’s not really the case with the firefighters, since they endorsed Fernando Herrera in 2011, and endorsed Gene Locke in 2009. Mayor Parker won both of those elections without their support, so it’s not clear why this time is different. Good for Ben Hall, but it’s not in the same league as winning the endorsement of a previous supporter.

Speaking of which, if one is going to claim the endorsement of someone who had previously supported one’s opponent, it’s best to actually have the endorsement of that person. And when mistakes about endorsements happen, as they sometimes do during campaign, it’s best to correct them quickly lest they remain on the Internet long after they’re first noticed. I’m just saying. Texpatriate has more.

On city delegations and firefighter pensions

There are two points of interest in this Chron editorial about the Legislature and the desire of the city to get a bill passed that would give it some leverage over the firefighters in their fight over the pension fund.

Sometimes we wonder if there really is such a thing as a “Houston delegation” representing our city’s interests in the Texas Legislature.

This is one of those moments. With the deadline for filing bills coming in a legislative heartbeat, on March 8, no representative or senator from Houston has stepped up to carry legislation dealing with what is without question the most important issue facing our city in Austin.

We’re speaking of a bill that would, once and for all, get city pension matters out of the Legislature’s hands and return them to local control.

Failure of a single lawmaker with Houston behind his or her name to take this step is a deep disappointment. The failure of any of our representatives to do so for the second session in a row borders on political malfeasance. Shame!

The inability of the city to have the right of “meet and confer” with representatives of the firefighters pension fund leaves our leaders literally “flying blind” in estimating the amounts owed by city taxpayers to fund the firefighters’ pensions. Enabling legislation granting “meet and confer” with the firefighters is the essential first step in effectively managing the long-term funding obligations of the city to this group. With the firefighters continuing to enjoy the privilege of withholding pension fund information from city officials, the best Mayor Parker and other leaders can hope for is an uneasy truce with municipal employees and Houston police officers, whose pension boards have agreed to meet and confer and changed their benefits. At least through meet and confer with the other employee groups the city has been able to provide sustainable benefit structures for future and recently hired employees.

I’m not going to get into the merits or demerits of such legislation. I’ve talked about it plenty – see here, here, here, and here for a sample – and will undoubtedly talk more about it in the future. But note the bit about the March 8 deadline for filing legislation. If the kind of bill the Chron wants does not get filed by then, that’s it for two years. What that means in particular is that as we enter the city of Houston election season, anyone who talks about the need to control pension costs without acknowledging the legislative aspect of it and the need to find someone to author or sponsor a bill is someone who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Again, I’m not taking a position here on the wisdom of this approach, just pointing out the legal realities. This is a legislative issue first. Tell me what you would do about that, then I’ll listen when you want to talk about what you would do when and if that obstacle is removed. If you’re not even aware that there is an obstacle, then the rest of what you have to say isn’t important anyway.

The other point is this:

There are 37 people representing Houston in Austin – 29 in the Texas House of Representatives and eight in the Texas Senate.

I stared at that list for a few minutes, trying to figure out how they came up with it. The list contains all 24 members of the Harris County delegation, three of the four members from Fort Bend (all but Phil Stephenson), and two of the three from Montgomery County (Cecil Bell and Steve Toth, but not Brandon Creighton). It’s true that the city of Houston extends into those other counties, but the footprint in each is small. In the 2012 election, 998 votes were cast in Montgomery County for the city of Houston bond propositions. This represents less than 0.6% of the 175,419 total votes in Montgomery County. In Fort Bend, 9,304 votes were cast out of 222,626 total, which is 4.1%; we also know that there are a total of 21,504 voters in the relevant precincts, and 341,523 total voters, or 6.3%. Point being, the reach of Houston into these counties is quite limited. I’m pretty sure only Toth, whose district is on the south end of Montgomery, and Ron Reynolds actually have Houston voters as constituents.

It turns out that the Chron complied this list the way that I would have if I had no other information available to me and wanted to take a stab at figuring out who represents Houston. They simply went to the Find Your Representative query on the Texas House webpage, filled in “Houston” for the city, and then alphabetized the result without giving the matter any further thought. If I were to ask Olivia to research the question and she came back with this answer, I’d tell her she did a good job getting this far. I’d also tell her that we could refine the result and come up with a more appropriate list. It might occur to you, for example, that Harris County is roughly twice the population of Houston. Surely there are a few reps whose districts fall entirely within the non-Houston parts of Harris County. How could one tell? Well, one could check Harris County precinct results from the 2012 elections to see which State Rep districts contained no votes for the Houston bond propositions. And guess what? I already did that work for you. State Rep districts 128 (Wayne Smith), 130 (Allen Fletcher), 135 (Gary Elkins), and 150 (Debbie Riddle) lie entirely outside the city limits of Houston. If anyone took up the Chron’s call to action after reading this editorial, it would be completely appropriate for them to say in response that this was none of their concern. In fact, that’s the response I’d want them to give since they don’t actually represent any Houston voters. Districts 126 (Patricia Harless), 132 (Bill Callegari), and 144 (Mary Ann Perez) have minimal overlap with Houston; if any of them declined to get involved on the grounds that they have higher priorities for their districts and constituents, I would not blame them. That reduces the “Houston delegation” down to 19 in the House. As for the Senate, I didn’t do this analysis for Senate districts back then, and frankly I don’t feel like doing it now. I’d be pretty confident about excluding Sens. Glenn Hegar and Tommy Williams from the “Houston” list, and I’d note that about two-thirds of Larry Taylor’s voters live in Galveston and Brazoria Counties. That takes our size-38 delegation down to 24, and it didn’t take me very long to figure that out. Why the Chron didn’t take a few more minutes to do the same is a question I can’t answer.

Let the endorsement race begin!

We may not have a date for the SD06 special election, but that doesn’t mean the race hasn’t begun. In particular, the race to begin collecting endorsements has begun, and both major declared candidates have announced wins. Sylvia Garcia has the AFL-CIO on her side.

[Wednesday] Harris County AFL-CIO COPE Members met with Senate District 6 candidates and by a landslide voted to endorse Sylvia Garcia as the leader they know will fight for fair jobs, healthcare and education in Austin.

“Sylvia Garcia has been a strong supporter of working families’ issues from her days with the City of Houston to Commissioners Court. She has the experience and knowledge to represent the people of District 6 and will address critical needs like education and healthcare. Sylvia will be an outstanding Senator for the State of Texas,” said Richard Shaw, Harris County AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer.

Meanwhile, Carol Alvarado has the firefighters.

State Representative Carol Alvarado has received the backing of Houston Firefighters in her campaign for Texas State Senate District 6. She is running to succeed the late Senator Mario Gallegos, a former Houston Firefighter who passed away in October.

Alvarado has been endorsed by the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341, which represents over 3,800 men and women who serve in the nation’s third largest fire department.

“I am honored to receive the support of Houston Firefighters,” Alvarado said. “These men and women put themselves on the line every day to protect the people of this community, and it means a great deal that they are supporting with me, particularly since Senator Gallegos was one of their own.”

“Mario Gallegos was our brother,” said Local 341 President Jeff Caynon. “While we still grieve his passing, we are proud to stand with Carol Alvarado to succeed him in the Senate. She is a strong advocate for firefighters and public safety and we believe she is the best candidate to continue Mario’s work.”

We have discussed the value of endorsements many times, and while that value varies with the race and the endorsement in question, they ought to be quite valuable in a special election like this one, since endorsements like these should translate into some number of votes from the members of the endorsing groups. Especially in a race where there’s hardly any difference between the candidates in terms of issues or record of public service, endorsements like these give people like me whose impression going in is that either candidate would be fine by them a reason to pick one over the other. Finally, if there are any other potential candidates out there still weighing their options, as Rick Noriega is said to be doing, the longer they take to decide the more of these they’ll miss out on, thus making it that much harder to win when and if they do jump in. It’s in both Sylvia Garcia’s and Carol Alvarado’s interest to keep the field small, or at least the field of candidates with a realistic path to victory.

Lineup update

The Chron story that ran in yesterday’s news is now updated online to reflect the fact that CM Melissa Noriega does have two opponents, Brad Batteau and Chris Carmona. I emailed reporter Chris Moran yesterday to ask about that discrepancy, and he replied that it was just an error on his part, for which he apologized to Carmona. The City Secretary‘s candidate listing hasn’t changed since yesterday, so I would assume at this point that what you see is what you’re going to get.

In my writeup yesterday, I noted that I could not find a voter registration online for now-former HISD candidate Art Huerta. Fred King with the Tax Assessor’s office emailed me to say that Huerta had requested some time ago that his registration certificate info be suppressed online, which is why it was not visible to me. He also confirmed for me that Huerta’s registration info listed him in HISD District VIII. Now I’m not sure why he thought he was in IV to begin with, since apparently the redistricting did not affect his address. HISD needs to get itself some better quality maps. My thanks to Fred King for the information.

I still have no idea if any new HCC Trustee candidates emerged at the last minute. There’s no listing of filed candidates for these races that I can see. If you Google “HCC Trustee Candidates”, you can find this page that tells you how to file to run, but nothing that tells you who has done so. I guess I need to send someone another email, but frankly I find it ridiculous that this information isn’t out there somewhere.

Having said all that, a Google search of “HISD Trustee Candidates” doesn’t find anything, either, but at least those races got reported on. My presumption is there’s nothing new to report, and the lineup we already knew about – Richard Schechter and Chris Oliver running unopposed, Carroll Robinson and Jew Don Boney running for the seat being vacated by Michael Williams – is the same. It would still be nice to have confirmation.

And finally, we have our first official attack mailer of the season, from the Houston Police Officers Union against CM Jolanda Jones. Both HPOU and the HPFFA have endorsed Jones’ opponent Laurie Robinson. There are a lot of interesting races this year, but it’s hard to top At Large #5 for drama and intrigue.

UPDATE: So I wake up this morning and there’s an email to Whitmarsh’s list that announces the endorsements made by the Harris County Tejano Democrats (not listed on their website yet), and one of the endorsed candidates is a fellow named Wendell Robbins, III, who is apparently running for HCC Trustee in District IX, against Chris Oliver. I found nothing useful about him or his candidacy via Google; he’s on Facebook but his last wall posting is from May; and of course as noted there’s no listing of HCC Trustee candidates anywhere. Awesome. Anyone know anything about this?