Judge denies efforts to block Houston firefighter pay parity amendment
State District Judge Randy Wilson decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — and approved it anyway
By Jasper Scherer
HOUSTON — A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.
State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.
“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.
Tuesday’s ruling throws out a temporary restraining order granted Nov. 30, by state District Judge Kristen Hawkins at the request of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which further sought an injunction on the amendment.
The City of Houston, meanwhile, attempted to put the amendment on hold by applying for a “stay.” Wilson denied the city and police union’s applications Tuesday while lifting Hawkins’ order.
The police union does not plan to appeal the ruling, president Joe Gamaldi said Tuesday.
A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner said he did not know if the city would appeal the ruling, but the mayor said in a statement that the city will start the process of implementing the amendment, pending a final determination on the matter in the courts.
“The implementation of Prop B will not happen overnight, but the process does start now,” Turner said. “I ask Houstonians to bear with us as we work through this process while the legal matters are still being resolved.”
Wilson’s ruling, fire union president Marty Lancton said, “confirms what we have said all along: Proposition B is constitutional.”
“The mayor, as we see it, has two sensible options moving forward,” Lancton told reporters. “Implement Prop B, or pick up the phone and call firefighters so we can work toward a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”
In a statement Tuesday, the police union echoed warnings by Turner that the charter amendment would force hundreds of layoffs if the city is required to implement it.
“While the HPOU feels for the fire employees who may be laid off and the reduction of service to the public, we have done everything in our power to stop the catastrophic effects of Prop B,” the union’s statement reads. “Fire union leaders have said the Mayor is only bluffing and layoffs are a scare tactic. We shall see.”
Asked what he would tell union members if the city lays off hundreds of firefighters, Lancton cast blame on Turner’s administration for being “vindictive and retaliatory,” saying city council and the mayor “will be held accountable for whatever actions they take.”
“We remain committed to sitting here and talking with anybody, any time, any place,” Lancton said, repeating his calls for Turner to return to the bargaining table, where Lancton hopes the two sides can work out a contract that would phase in pay parity, instead of requiring it be implemented in full.
Turner previously has declined the offer, saying any salary negotiations requested by the union were an attempt to confuse the issue before a court can decide whether collective bargaining can supersede the voter-approved amendment. The mayor said Tuesday that “less senior firefighters” would be laid off to fund the salaries of longer-tenured members of the department.
The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.
Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.
The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.
The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.
As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Houston City Council is set to vote Wednesday whether to approve an additional $185,500 to cover the city’s legal expenses.
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