It should alarm everyone when a government official can unilaterally deny citizens their rights, but that regularly happens in Houston without much concern.
Highlighting this problem is a pay parity petition submitted by the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund. During the last legislative session, after pension negotiation talks broke down, the firefighters held a petition drive asking Houstonians to place a pay parity referendum on the ballot. This would mean the Houston Fire Department pay per rank would match the Houston Police Department’s.
After collecting over 25,000 signatures in a matter of days, the firefighters held a press conference at city hall surrounded by 15 boxes of petitions. They submitted them to the city secretary and began the waiting process.
There were two petitions ahead of the firefighters’, one that was counted and another that was stalled. That stall, along with disinterest by the administration to consider the firefighters’ petition, led to a nearly year-long wait to get them counted.
The first stalled petition asked for a public vote on defined-contribution pension plans, and is still sitting in the pipeline. At the time, the city was in the midst of pension reform, so the administration didn’t want to consider either petition and didn’t allocate additional resources to the city secretary’s office to speed up the process.
It wouldn’t be the first time resources have been diverted. Former Mayor Annise Parker did so in the past to speed up the process. But Turner, who likely didn’t want them counted, had the power to inhibit the process.
The firefighters eventually filed suit and won, forcing their petitions to be counted.
Again the city stalled, this time asking for a delay in completing the count. Eventually the job was done and it was confirmed that, in fact, the firefighters had enough signatures to place their item on the ballot.
That was nearly a month ago and the only time Turner has broached the issue since is to attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the petition. Despite the fact that the firefighters released the detailed petition breaking down what they are asking for, Turner has repeatedly claimed that the petition doesn’t define what parity means. He claims that he doesn’t know what parity means, and that they cannot place something on the ballot for which they don’t know the definition.
There are a number of issues at hand.
The lack of a statutory deadline for cities to count citizen-driven petitions allows city executives to stall on petitions that they don’t support. This is not a secret nor is it exclusive to Turner. Parker did it as well, and it likely happens in cities around the state. The lack of a deadline often forces citizens to sue to have their right to petition government recognized. For groups and coalitions, this may not be a large burden, but for the average citizen trying to petition their government this burden can often be too big to overcome.
The fact that so much power, direct or indirect, lies with one person is another problem. Unilaterally stalling petitions is one abuse enabled by the larger problem of strong-mayor governments. One would expect their council members to act on issues like this by being a counterbalance to mayoral powers, but when so much existing power resides within one office, they can’t.
At this point, the mayor has no choice but to at least bring the issue to council for consideration, and it will likely end up on the ballot. But, the underlying problem remains. This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that a Houston mayor uses the powers of the office to thwart a citizen-led effort.
Whether or not you agree that HFD deserves pay parity with HPD, they deserve to have the issue placed in front of voters on the nearest uniform election date.
It shouldn’t require a lawsuit every time you seek to affect your government through the petition process. Local governments impose more than enough hurdles for citizens to jump through just to engage with them on issues that matter, and petitioning shouldn’t be as punishing as governments make it.