Houston firefighters take city to court over pay 'parity' petition
The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank
By Mike Morris
HOUSTON — 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.
“The petitioners’ argument is, ‘On this one back in 2010 or 2012 you managed to turn that around pretty fast, so we want to hold the city secretary to the same standard going forward,’” he said. “If they wanted to prove that case, they would have had to put on evidence of what that petition looked like, if there were any issues, how easy it was to verify, what kind of manpower she had. There’s no proof that could have been done in 30 days.”
David Gunn, an attorney for the firefighters, pushed back, noting that the petition has now failed to qualify for both the November 2017 and May 2018 ballots.
“Petitions can be counted in 30 days; it’s just a matter of prioritizing them,” he said. “There are of course other obligations in the city secretary’s office, but it can be done and for that reason we think it should be done. We’re asking the court to step in so that, after we’ve missed two trains, we don’t miss the third train.”
The fight over the petition comes as the fire union is suing the city over stalled contract talks. Firefighters have been without a contract for almost four years, and have received just a 3 percent raise since 2011.
“Every paycheck that passes… it damages firefighters,” Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, testified Monday.
The firefighters accuse Mayor Sylvester Turner of preventing Russell from counting and validating the signatures on the petition.
Turner has said Russell -- who has served under 12 mayors in her 65 years at the city -- is conducting her work without interference from him, an account Russell has confirmed and repeated again several times under oath Monday.
Russell said she always counts citizen petitions in the order she receives them and has her staff do so in their spare time. She testified that she has eight full-time employees, only three or four of whom have spare time to work on petitions during a regular week.
No one has ever told her not to count the firefighters’ petitions and she has never discussed the implications of missing ballot deadlines with anyone at the city, she said. To speed up her count, Russell said she would need overtime money for her staff, which she has not requested because she was not told to meet a specific deadline.
In response to questions from fire union attorney Patrice Childress, Russell said several methods to speed up her work are unpalatable to her.
That includes, she said, an offer from the fire union last fall to cover her staff’s overtime pay.
“I figured that, anyone circulating a petition, it’d be a conflict of interest to receive any payment to handle that differently than any other petition,” Russell said.
State law also permits Russell to use statistical sampling rather than counting each name up to the required 20,000 signatures (in the case of a charter amendment petition) to verify petitions. She testified she has not done so since the advent of the desktop computer, however.
"I’ve found that they’re usually on very political issues,” Russell said. “I find that it’s more fair to do the 20,000, if it’s a charter (amendment petition). I think it cuts down some complaints as to whether or not it was done properly.”
Russell said an employee did begin numbering the pages on the fire petition, a standard part of the verification process, three weeks ago, because she wanted to make some effort to respond after the firefighters’ lawsuit.
Her staff still hasn’t begun counting the firefighter petition, however, because she said they are still working on the first of three boxes submitted with the pension petition.
Turner has estimated the annual cost of the pay parity proposal at more than $60 million. Houston faces projected deficits of more than $100 million in each of the next five years.
Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle