With a deadline fast approaching, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association is pressuring City Hall to verify the thousands of petition signatures it gathered in support of putting equal pay with police officers on the November election ballot.
The firefighters union has claimed that the city is "refusing" to confirm whether it will certify the 52,000 petition signatures the union turned in to City Hall in mid-July, and has claimed that it appears the city is just going to let the clock run out on the petition, which Mayor Sylvester Turner has made clear he opposes. The deadline for City Council to approve the election call is August 21 — meaning there's a good chance the firefighters' plea for pay increases to match the salaries of city police in equal ranks won't make the ballot. Unless the city decides to do something about it.
"The firefighters have exhausted numerous resources in order to get fair and equal treatment," HPFFA President Marty Lancton said at a press conference Monday. "We hope we can continue to work with the city and that equal treatment of the firefighters turns into putting our petition on the November ballot so that the citizens can decide."
City Hall, however, has argued in return that what the firefighters are asking for amounts to unequal treatment, given the City Secretary's office has not finished counting signatures on a different petition that was filed in April, said mayor's office spokesman Alan Bernstein.
"The mayor's opinion is that if there are special exceptions made, then everyone will want a special exception," he said.
Lancton had in fact been so eager for City Secretary Anna Russell to begin counting signatures on the union's petition that he offered to provide the funds for her to hire additional people or pay employees overtime — which he put in writing in a letter to Mayor Turner. Bernstein said this prompted the mayor's office to request an investigation into Lancton for improper influence. But on Monday, the city attorney recommended that no action be taken, Bernstein said.
The April petition that's apparently standing in the way of the firefighters' equal-pay initiative is problematic for several reasons, Lancton claims. The petition was filed by the outside political group Texans For Local Control — which is based in Austin, according to campaign finance records — and it pushes for 401(k)-style pension reform. The problem with that, argues former city attorney David Feldman, who now represents the firefighters union, is that the Legislature already passed Mayor Turner's pension-reform solution during the regular session, thus making this petition moot.
Feldman said the state, not city governments, has the final say on pension policies — which makes it highly unlikely that even if Texans for Local Control's petition was verified by August 21, placed on the ballot and approved by voters, it would even matter much. That's because the Legislature would then need to tackle Houston pension reform all over again after this year's long slog working with Turner and the city to address it. On top of that, past and present city employees here, including the Houston Police Officers Union and the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund, don't even support the type of 401(k)-style pension this petition was advocating for. (Attempts to reach representatives of Texans for Local Control for comment before press time were unsuccessful.)
In his letter to Turner, Lancton asked that Turner direct Russell to quit counting the signatures for these reasons — but that does not appear likely to happen.
Russell, who has been city secretary for 45 years, told the Houston Press that she has always verified the thousands of signatures on petitions in the order she receives them, and that she doesn't foresee making an exception for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. Russell said she doesn't focus on the content of petitions or whether they will be "moot," just on her job to verify signatures. The city has maintained that Mayor Turner's opposition to the HPFFA petition has had no bearing whatsoever on Russell's own decades-long policies regarding how she reviews petition signatures.
Turner has long held that firefighters are asking for too much from the financially strapped city, from pay raises to better equipment. He said that equal pay between police and firefighters would be ill-conceived given that they work different hours and their command staffs are structured differently, and he has maintained that if voters were to approve the petition, Houston would be plunged into financial duress.
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"What they are asking voters to sign is ill-defined, and making the most simplistic assumptions could cost the city more than $40M," he said. "That would force the city to schedule layoffs in all department areas or further delay maintenance on buildings and purchase schedules for much-needed equipment. The City appreciates and respects every fire fighter, but the demands of their union leadership will financially cripple the City, absent removing the revenue cap and a further tax increase."
City Councilman Dwight Boykins has pushed back, however, saying that, despite the budget constraints, Houston needs to find a way to treat its first responders better; and Councilman Michael Kubosh, while he may be more focused on the budget constraints, has still said he supports the petition and believes the equal-pay issue should be left up to Houston voters.
"We have said it before: Enough is enough," Lancton said. "If democracy cannot prevail, I don't know what can."
He may just have to wait on democracy a little longer: Bernstein said if the city doesn't verify signatures before August 21, the firefighters will just have to wait for the next election, in May.