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Jeff Caynon

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.

HFD ratifies deal with city

It was a close vote, but the deal they reached in March was ratified.

Union members passed the contract by a 1,560 to 1,391 vote.

The deal saves 236 firefighters from layoffs in 2012, but concessions include a two-year pay freeze and a 1 percent raise in 2014. Also under the agreement, the firefighters who leave the department will no longer receive their accrued time off paid in a lump sum, but instead spread over four years.

The ratification comes only a few days before the City Council is slated to approve Mayor Annise Parker’s $1.8 billion budget.

Parker sought to reduce the fire department’s $449 million budget by $17.7 million. Tense negotiations between the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the mayor on how to make those cuts have taken several months.

HPFFA President Jeff Caynon said in a prepared statement that although the union believes the deal was better than the city’s first offer, the approval was difficult.

“As the close vote indicates, our members remain concerned about the Parker Administration’s hostility toward firefighters,” Caynon stated.

Mayor Parker released this statement:

“Public safety is and always has been my number one priority for the City of Houston. This is reflected in the buget proposal City Council will vote on next week. Members of the Houston Fire Department do outstanding work for Houstonians every day. While disappointed the union’s negotiators rejected a long-term and more beneficial contract in favor of this short-term agreement with little to offer either side, I want to thank the rank and file for stepping forward to help the City with the tough economic times we are going through. Their ratification of this new contract will prevent the lay off of any additional city employees and provide significant relief to help close the books on the budget for the coming fiscal year.”

The one thing I haven’t seen in any reports about this is the length of the contract. I’m wondering when the Mayor (whether Parker or someone else) and the HPFFA will have to do this again. Be that as it may, the pieces are now all in place for Council to vote on the city’s budget on Wednesday.

The Mayor and the firefighters

Despite the tone of this, I wouldn’t make too much of it.

While looking for tens of millions of dollars through a combination of cuts, deferrals, savings and fee hikes, Mayor Annise Parker repeatedly has identified the Houston Fire Department as one of the largest of budget bogeymen.

Whether describing an intransigent pension board, a union rejecting attempts to reduce overtime or the department’s overspending, Parker frequently has criticized the representatives of men and women who generally enjoy a public image as heroes and lifesavers.

Last week, her ongoing public sparring with firefighters culminated in a series of statements that painted the union and pension board as impediments to solving the city’s budget problems. When announcing a deal with the union to defer termination pay to save 238 firefighters’ jobs in fiscal year 2012, she told the media that she had been “stood up” by the union president who had been expected to show and play nice for the cameras.

The next day, she announced a deal with the police pension board to defer $17 million in pension payments. She contrasted their cooperation with the firefighters’ pension board’s rejection — and “not very politely” — of a similar deal. Last Thursday, even as she gloated a bit about the labor deal she had struck with the firefighters just 10 minutes before she was to send out layoff notices, she lashed the department for busting its budget year after year.

She made a point of mentioning that the only person calling for a tax increase this year was firefighter union chief Jeff Caynon.

“The mayor’s administration has been hostile to firefighters from Day One,” Caynon said. “There’s no question that if you asked the average firefighter on the street, they would tell you that they think the mayor hates firefighters.”

Now, the mayor needs those firefighters to ratify the labor agreement. If they reject it, they blow a $12 million hole in her budget just as her $1.8 billion plan goes before City Council for adoption.

It’s true that the Mayor and the firefighters, who of course endorsed Gene Locke in 2009, don’t exactly see eye to eye. It’s just that it’s not particularly remarkable that this is the case. The story notes that Kathy Whitmire had a contentious relationship with the firefighters, but there’s still more than that. The firefighters endorsed Orlando Sanchez over Lee Brown in 2001, and while I don’t recall them butting heads with Bill White, they endorsed Rick Perry for Governor last year, so draw your own conclusions. Seems to me this is pretty much par for the course. As for the deal that the union will have to vote on, the question is simple: Do they think they can do better if they turn this one down? I have no idea. Everything else is a political calculation. Neil has more.

Firefighters avoid layoffs

The city and the firefighters’ union reach an agreement on the deadline for sending layoff notices to cut HFD’s budget by $17.7 million but not require any layoffs.

The agreement’s components include program cuts and fees for services that are currently free such as plan checks for new construction. But the largest chunk of the savings comes from deferring rather than cutting spending.

Under the agreement, firefighters who leave the department will no longer get their accrued time off paid in a lump sum but instead spread over four years. In addition, although the mayor’s team guaranteed no firefighter layoffs for fiscal year 2012, the union did not succeed in getting that guarantee extended to 2013.

Nor did it solve the thorniest of issues between the city and the union. The city wants to smooth out vacation scheduling by restricting how many firefighters can take time off during summer and holiday months, when the city pays millions of dollars in overtime to cover the shifts while so many employees are out. The two sides agreed to appoint a joint labor-management committee to work on the issue.

“It’s not a permanent solution, but it is something that will absolutely prevent the immediate layoff of firefighters,” [Mayor Annise] Parker said.

[Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Jeff] Caynon said, “We have accomplished agreement in principle that prevents firefighters from layoffs and preserves our ability to provide service at the level we have today.”

HFD had previously laid off some civilian staff; this agreement was about the firefighters themselves. The agreement still needs to be ratified by Council.

Mayor seeks pension fund cuts

Given the size of the budget shortfall for next year and the amount that the city pays into the various pension funds, Mayor Parker’s proposal to pay less should not be a surprise to anyone.

City Attorney David Feldman and Finance Director Kelly Dowe already have asked firefighter pension executives to accept $14 million less than the city’s obligation to the pension system for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They plan to ask police for cuts as well, they said.

“We asked them to work with us to determine whether we could reduce the amount paid in, and I pledged that concessions made would offset cuts made to the fire department,” Parker said Tuesday.

Early this month Parker asked the fire department to cut $22 million from its $449 million budget as part of a larger set of spending targets issued to city departments.

Firefighter pension leaders who met with Feldman and Dowe at City Hall late last week said they were told that the city would be laying off between 200 and 300 firefighters, as well as closing some stations. They talked of the administration’s desire to reduce the pension payment by $14 million during the same discussion.

“We feel like it’s an ultimatum. The result is, from their perspective, to make the pension plan look bad so they can pass their budget,” said Christopher Gonzales, executive director and chief investment officer of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund. “They’re balancing the budget on the backs of the firefighters, and that’s unfair.”

With all due respect, I think the other city employees that have been furloughed or laid off would disagree with that characterization. Everyone knows that the trajectory the city is on with its pension obligations is unsustainable. The resolution will ultimately involve some combination of the city paying less, the firefighters contributing more, and pensioners (current and future) taking less. It’s just a matter of how messy it is getting there.

UPDATE: I received this statement from HPFFA President Jeff Caynon, which disputes the Mayor’s claims about the budget. It reads in part:

“A few months ago, firefighters negotiated with HFD to restrict vacation use and adjust the department deployment model which saved the city about $5 million. The mayor then recently ordered HFD to cut its budget by five percent – or about $25 million. The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) recently lower the city’s contribution thereby saving the city of Houston $13 million per year for the next three years.

“None of the $13 million pension reduction was counted toward the $23 million budget cuts ordered by the mayor. In fact, during recent discussions the mayor’s financial director expressly notified firefighters that any savings related to pension reduction would not count toward the city’s imposed HFD budget cuts.

“The mayor’s comments today were misleading, but they also continue a pattern of behind-the-scenes pension and layoff threats that contradict the administration’s statements about their public safety commitment. The mayor also has attempted to pit police and firefighters against each other by increasing the city’s contribution to the police pension without argument while failing to acknowledge the efforts of firefighter’s pension.”

Click the link for the rest.

HFD news

Couple of big stories relating to the Houston Fire Department in the news this week. First, the EEOC makes a ruling:

The Houston Fire Department’s failure to properly address discrimination complaints by a female firefighter and subsequent retaliation subjected her to a “hostile work environment” based on her gender, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined.

EEOC District Director R.J. Ruff Jr. notified HFD and the firefighter, Jane Draycott, of the agency’s decision in a letter. The decision, or “determination,” may clear the way for a negotiated settlement between Draycott and the fire department or a possible lawsuit — filed by Draycott or the federal government.

Draycott and another firefighter, Paula Keyes, found racist and sexist graffiti scrawled on the walls of their dormitory at Station 54 on July 7, 2009. The incident occurred after Draycott had complained to HFD officials of harassment.

“There is reasonable cause to believe that Charging Party (Draycott) was personally and individually subjected to a hostile work environment based on her gender and that she was retaliated against,” the letter stated. The EEOC’s ruling said that “… management was well aware of the fact that Charging Party was being subjected to a hostile work environment because of her gender but failed to take corrective action.”

The city is seeking a settlement, which will hopefully bring an end to one aspect of this saga. Fixing the underlying problems is still very much an unresolved issue, however. We still don’t know who in particular is responsible for the graffiti, and it’s clear HFD has a lot of work to do to change its culture. But at least perhaps Jane Draycott can get some closure.

And when one door closes, another one opens.

The city’s Office of Inspector General will open an investigation into a visit City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones made to a downtown fire station Friday in which she is alleged to have used profanity and criticized the work ethic of firefighters.

Jones ardently disputed the account of the incident provided by officials with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, saying she had a jovial exchange with firefighters at Station 8 that was part of a team-building exercise she organized for her staff.

She said the account provided by Jeff Caynon, the fire union president, is “inaccurate” and suggested it was politically motivated. Jones said she does not remember using profanity.

“When the truth comes out, people will see it’s not accurate,” she said.

There’s no point in speculating here. What we have is two diametrically opposed stories being told by people who don’t like each other. Let the OIG do its work and sort it out as best it can.

Some Prop 3 action

Campos observed last week that there hasn’t been any action on Prop 3, which is the red light camera referendum. That’s about to change.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association, a group that represents more than 4,000 firefighters, said it supports red-light cameras.

President Jeff Caynon is urging Houstonians to vote for Proposition 3 on Election Day.

He said red-light cameras are a safety tool that change behaviors and save lives.

Caynon is also featured in a new television commercial in support of red-light cameras. The ad began airing in Houston on Monday.

The endorsement follows the show of support for red-light cameras by another public safety group — the Houston Police Officers’ Association.

Video of the story is here. Has anyone seen one of these ads yet? I wonder if the anti-camera forces will have the resources to put up ads or send out mailers or something.

One thing to note:

Proposition 3 on the November ballot asks voters if red-light cameras should stay up or be removed.

Note the wording on that. Even though Prop 3 is on the ballot because of the efforts of those who want to remove the cameras, a vote FOR Prop 3 is a vote to retain the cameras. A vote AGAINST Prop 3 is a vote to take them down. I had assumed that the ballot language would be correlated to the effort of its petitioners, and that led to me being initially confused when I saw that the Houston GLBT Political Caucus is recommending a FOR vote on Prop 3, since I didn’t think of them as being anti-camera, but I inquired and got the matter cleared up. In another sense, this is more logical – if you want the cameras, vote FOR them; if you don’t, vote AGAINST them. I just wanted to point this out in case anyone else was operating under the same assumption I had been. And just to make things interesting, note that if you live in Baytown, it’s the exact opposite – a FOR vote there is to dump the cameras, an AGAINST vote is to keep them. Isn’t this fun?

Jolanda versus the world

If you’re on Carl Whitmarsh’s mailing list, you’ve probably seen this, which is one of several mailers being sent out by the Jack Christie campaign. That one is going to the Heights, Montrose, and District C. The others are this one, being sent to voters in Council Districts A and G; this one, being sent to voters in District E; and this one, also being sent to voters in District C.

Looking at all of these, I think it’s safe to say that Council Member Jones has alienated a number of her colleagues. I can’t recall anything like this in recent years, where sitting members have openly support a challenger to a colleague. (Did anyone do this to Shelley Sekula Gibbs in 2003 when Peter Brown ran against her?) What’s damning about it is that much like the earlier mailer Christie sent out, it uses Jones’ own words and actions against her. I like CM Jones. I think she has a lot of talent, I think she represents a constituency that otherwise doesn’t have much of a voice, and I think she has the potential to do a lot of good. But she has definitely provided her critics with a lot of ammunition, and it’s stunning to see so many of her fellow Council members try to oust her like this. If she does survive, it’ll be very interesting to see what her relationship with these members will be like going forward. I’m thinking it’ll be awkward for awhile.

With all that said, I don’t think anyone has too much trouble with CMs Lawrence, Clutterbuck, Sullivan, and Holm, all of whom are on the opposite side of the political fence as Jones and none of whom are currently involved in an election of their own, supporting a fellow member of their party. The mailer by CM Lovell is the explosive one. It’s a little bizarre to think that at this time in 2007, Lovell was working to help Jones get elected. The relationship fell apart pretty quickly after the election, and the two have been feuding ever since. I happen to think that Sue Lovell is also a pretty good Council member, but it’s no secret that she is not the forgiving type. She has reportedly been telling donors not to contribute to Jones. I’m not going to defend what Jones said about HPFFA President Jeff Caynon, which is the basis of Lovell’s attack on her, though I will note that Jones did get a $1000 contribution from the Houston chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters. But I believe Lovell crossed a line here, and judging from what I’ve seen elsewhere, that may be one of the more restrained reactions to this. If Lovell was still thinking about running for County Clerk next year, something that already seemed unlikely with the entrance of Sue Schechter and her show of strength early on, I’d say her odds of getting nominated just got a lot longer. Not to mention the fact that she still has an election of her own to win. She’s certainly stuck her neck out, I’ll say that much.

I guess what really bothers me about this is precisely that both Jones and Lovell are talented Council members. All of this is just a needless distraction and a waste of energy. I wish Jones had not put herself in this position but had instead channeled her energy and passion on Council in more productive ways. I hope that should she survive this election, it will spur her to do exactly that. I wish Lovell would learn to put things behind her and focus on what’s ahead. I hope whatever happens in their respective races, the next City Council finds a way to work together and help the new Mayor deal with the challenges that we face. Surely we all deserve that.

UPDATE: The Lovell mailer was sent out by her campaign, not by Christie’s. My apologies for the confusion.

Endorsement watch: We take it back

Here’s something you don’t see every election. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which had previously endorsed City Council Member Jolanda Jones for re-election to her At Large #5 seat, has now rescinded that endorsement. You can read their letter to CM Jones here (PDF), which is signed by union President Jeff Caynon, who are you know has been sparring with Jones lately. I think this is Round Three, but I could be miscounting that. The HPFFA has not endorsed anyone else in this race, at least as yet.

I couldn’t find a list of other HPFFA endorsements, but I do know that they endorsed Gene Locke for Mayor last week. Locke has racked up a fair number of endorsements lately, mostly from the builders and real estate communities. Today he got the nod from several Latino elected officials, including State Sen. Mario Gallegos, State Rep. Carol Alvarado, Constable Victor Trevino, and HISD Trustee Diana Davila.

Meanwhile, the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats had their endorsement meeting last night, and recommended the following slate:

City of Houston Controller
Ronald Green

City Council At-large 1
Karen Derr

City Council At-large 2
Sue Lovell

City Council At-large 3
Melissa Noriega

City Council At-large 4
Noel Freeman

City Council At-large 5
Jolanda Jones

City Council District A
Lane Lewis

City Council District D
Wanda Adams

Like the HGLBT Political Caucus, the HSYDs had previously endorsed Annise Parker for Mayor. A lot of organizations are doing their screenings and making their choices around now, so look for plenty more of these notices.

Finally, according to a press release I received this afternoon, the Greater Houston Builders Association, which is one of those organizations that has backed Locke, gave its endorsement in At Large #4 to C.O. Bradford. The GHBA’s political advocacy page has not been updated yet to reflect any endorsements. For that matter, neither the HPFFA nor the HSYD pages had current endorsement information up yet. May I suggest y’all get on that, like soon? Thanks.

Jones and Caynon, take two

If you thought that the fight between Council Member Jolanda Jones and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Jeff Caynon was over, think again.

Earlier this week, City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones sent out a letter with nearly 70 names collected by firefighters expressing support for her advocacy about racial problems in the Houston Fire Department (more here).

Well, apparently, some of those whose names are on the letter didn’t actually sign the letter, and they are not happy about it.

There’s an affidavit in which the firefighters ask for a public apology and an investigation into how their names got on that letter. CM Jones then fired back. This is the sort of thing that could have been handled more privately and with a lower level of rancor if the relationship between Jones and Caynon not been so bad. Of course, if the relationship between the two of them been better, none of this would have happened in the first place.

I don’t know what to say about all that, but I will say this: Starting next week, I’m going to be interviewing Council members, now that I’ve done most of the non-incumbent candidates. You can be sure that the HFD saga will come up. Maybe I should try to schedule some time with Jeff Caynon as well.

Jones gets another opponent

In the wake of her comments about Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Jeff Caynon, Council Member Jolanda Jones has drawn a new challenger for her seat.

On Friday, retired HISD administrator Davetta Daniels filed to challenge Jones in November.

Daniels says Jones has been an embarrassment.

Bellaire native Carlos Obando also announced for the seat back in January.

Daniels ran for HISD Trustee in District IV in 2007, losing to Paula Harris by a 66-34 margin; click on Page 19 here to see the result. She represents a much more serious threat than Obando, whose campaign finance report is still not up, as she’s likely to draw from Jones’ existing base of support. Jones had a decent fundraising haul and has $54K on hand, but that’s not that much of an advantage. If Daniels gets some traction, she could be in real trouble.

Jones versus HPFFA

Yeesh.

The head of the Houston firefighters union blasted City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones for her handling of allegations of racism and sexism in the Houston Fire Department, saying in a sharply worded letter on Thursday that she had disparaged “thousands of firefighters.”

The letter, written by Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 President Jeff Caynon, also accuses her of making threats, intimidation and “racist ranting” during a July 14 discussion at a local restaurant.

Jones has urged the city to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for handling discrimination incidents and has stood by the side of two female firefighters who found racist and sexist graffiti scrawled in their quarters at an airport fire station earlier this month.

But Caynon, who is black, said in the letter that she crossed a line in the meeting when she referred to him as a “house Negro” only interested in keeping his job.

The term compares a person to the stereotype of a docile black servant living inside the house of a master during slavery.

“You imply that I am not really ‘black’ because I do not share your biased point of view,” Caynon wrote. “I do not know where to begin in responding, except to say that you and the race-baiting opportunists criticizing HFD deserve one another. I am indeed interested in keeping my job, and the choice between standing with the men and women of the HPFFA or standing with you is not a difficult one. Your insults are unwarranted, ignorant and damaging.”

You know, I like Council Member Jones. I think it’s a good thing, especially in our strong-Mayor system, for there to be a couple of Council members who march to their own beat, even if I don’t always agree with where that takes them. I have no idea what she was thinking here. There’s no place for this, and she needs to apologize. I note that the Chron story says she denies using the term “house Negro”, but she admitted to it in this KHOU story, saying she was “talking in passion.” She is also pushing back on her Facebook page, where she disputes one of the claims Caynon makes in his letter in her status. You can see the letter here. (PDF) Miya has more.

UPDATE: Here is CM Jones’ response. The key bits:

I disagree, in the strongest terms, with Mr. Caynon’s characterization of our meeting. While he is entitled to his opinion, justice will be served if we are operating under the same set of facts. There was no threat by the restaurant owner to call the police. In fact, as I was leaving I was pulled aside by a woman sitting at the next table with her young son, who wanted her son to meet me because she was proud that I was standing up for women.

I challenged Mr. Caynon in our heated conversation to stand up more forcefully for these female firefighters – whose jobs are stressful enough without having to deal with a hostile work environment while putting their lives at risk to keep Houston safe. During this heated discussion, I used inappropriate language used by others to describe Mr. Caynon, and for this, I apologize.

I want Houstonians to know that I will continue to challenge Mr. Caynon and our leaders until we honor all our firefighters by providing a workplace that is free from discrimination, intimidation and retaliation for ALL.

I respectfully ask Mr. Caynon and the union to do the same.

So there you have it.