Firefighters: Houston should clear way for 'pay parity' on ballot
The fire union accused Mayor Sylvester Turner of failing to ensure a petition seeking "parity" in pay with police officers is certified in time for voting
By Mike Morris
HOUSTON — Houston firefighters may be stymied in their push to achieve a voter-approved pay raise this November in part by a competing referendum petition that even its organizers no longer view as crucial.
The fire union again accused Mayor Sylvester Turner in a Monday press conference of failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month seeking "parity" in pay with police officers of corresponding rank is certified in time to appear on the ballot this fall.
Specifically, they say he has not approved funding for staff overtime that could get both measures counted by the Aug. 21 deadline to adjust the November ballot, and has not directed the city attorney to inform the city secretary – whose task it is to verify the firefighters' petition – that she can stop counting another petition they view as irrelevant.
Turner rejects any such notion, saying City Secretary Anna Russell – Houston's longest-tenured employee, with 65 years of service – will pursue her duties without any input from his office. Russell says she long has counted petitions in the order they are submitted, and plans to make no exception this year; state law sets no deadline by which petitions to change the city charter must be validated.
The petition that has delayed Russell's staff from starting work on the firefighters' petition calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional "defined benefit" pensions.
The firefighters view the pension petition as irrelevant, because a pension reform bill Turner pushed through the Legislature this year supersedes it.
"What if a charter amendment petition was filed stating that the city shall require that the Dallas Cowboys move to Houston? Would anybody suggest that charter amendment petition would have to be counted?" asked David Feldman, the firefighters' attorney. "No, because the city has absolutely no control over that."
The city disagrees with that legal reading, saying the courts have suggested petitions must be verified, placed on the ballot, and then have their validity litigated only if voters adopt them.
Still, an added wrinkle is that conservative activist Windi Grimes, an organizer of the pension petition effort, has said her group will not mount a campaign behind the petition even if it appears on the November ballot. That's because her group feels sufficient fiscal safeguards were added to the mayor's pension reform bill during negotiations in the Legislature, after the petition was submitted in April.
Grimes' group declined to comment last week on the petition count.
Despite the pension activists' position, however, Turner's spokesman Alan Bernstein said city attorneys are aware of no means by which Grimes' group or the voters who signed their petition can withdraw the document or rescind their support now that it has been filed with Russell's office.
Union chief no longer under investigation
The firefighters supported Turner in his mayoral bid, but the pension reform push quickly soured that relationship, and failed contract talks followed by the "parity" campaign haven't helped.
One allegation left pending from last week, however, was resolved Monday.
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton had offered to have the union cover whatever overtime costs were needed in Russell's office to count his group's petition, an offer Turner's office had interpreted as a possible "improper attempt to influence a public official."
Feldman called the allegation "absurd on its face." Councilman Dwight Boykins, speaking in support of the firefighters at Monday press conference, called it "disheartening," and Lancton last week had labeled the accusation a "lie."
On Monday, Bernstein said the legal department has determined it will not recommend any action against Lancton, and Turner has accepted that recommendation.
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