Much is lost in the seemingly never-ending back and forth between the City of Houston and the firefighters who collectively make up the Houston Professional Firefighters Association. But three things are certain: any petition submitted to the city should be verified as quickly as possible; if enough signatures are valid, council should immediately vote to place the referendum on the next general election ballot; and Mayor Sylvester Turner is squarely in the wrong for standing in the way of both of these processes.
Last week, frustrated by the constant delay, a group of council members called a special meeting to address why the mayor still hasn’t brought the Houston firefighters’ pay parity petition to council for a vote. After that became news, Turner claimed he was already planning a committee hearing on the exact topic. The council-called meeting failed to muster a quorum and after, Turner issued a statement saying, “The public has a right [to know] the facts about the referendum before it votes. Council members should not want to hide the facts from them.”
Turner’s attempt at cajoling the public into believing it is council who is standing in the way of the truth, rather than him, is laughable. In an effort to further delay, he has used his political knack to seamlessly mesh two very distinct issues, the first being the petition process and the second being the actual question of pay parity.
Even state legislators have been calling on Turner and council to act without delay.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, where city council’s budget committee is expected to review the issue, State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Baytown) told Texas Scorecard, “There’s just no excuse that this has not been placed on the ballot. For the last year and a half, Sylvester Turner’s administration has slow-walked this process. A vote delayed is a vote denied.”
Back in May, fifteen Houston-area state reps signed on to a letter addressed to the mayor and city council saying, “As state legislators, we implore the city to act with haste and quickly set the referendum for the November 6, 2018 general election. It has been nearly a year since this petition process began and we owe it to both the citizens and our first responders to put this issue to a vote.” The letter was sent by State Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) and signed by Harold Dutton (D-Houston), Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land), Ed Thompson (R-Pearland), Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston), Cecil Bell, Jr. (R-Magnolia), Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), Mary Ann Perez (D-Pasadena), Ernest J. Bailes (R-Shepherd), and Shawn Thierry (D-Houston).
The letter goes on to say, “If you need any help in navigating the process to ensure the referendum is set and passes, we are all more than happy to help.”
It has been two months since that letter and over a year now since the firefighters turned in the signatures requesting a public vote on whether or not members of their department deserve pay parity with their law enforcement counterparts. On July 17, 2017, the firefighters stood outside of city hall before delivering their petitions and said they were at a “breaking point” and were asking voters for assistance since the city refused to help.
They weren’t just successful in their petition drive; they, arguably, did it in record time.
However, the fastest thing about this entire process has been the collection of the signatures. Ten months of stalling followed by a lawsuit against the city finally led to the city secretary verifying the signatures on the petition.
The mayor’s excuse for the original delay in counting the signatures was that the city secretary’s process is independent of his office and the petitions would be validated once she was able to get to them.
While the city secretary’s process may be considered independent, she serves at the pleasure of the mayor and easily could have asked for additional resources to speed up the verification process. Additional resources weren’t provided because Turner, at best, did not want to assist the process and, at worst, wanted to delay it.
After the signatures were finally verified – the secretary found 20,228 – the mayor’s excuse shifted to the intent of the petition language.
He repeatedly attacked the validity of the measure, saying that he couldn’t bring an item to the public, or council for that matter, without knowing what the measure intended to do. The problem with that is the firefighters have long made the public aware of exactly what they are asking for and how the positions in the two departments align.
Whether it’s the firefighters or another group, no mayor should be able to unilaterally delay this process without repercussion.
Turner only recently said he plans to bring the item to council on the August 8 agenda, but as of today, there is still no assurance that it will be on the November ballot. It’s too soon to tell if the proposal they are pushing is the right answer. That argument is to be made by the campaigns on the respective sides, but voters undoubtedly deserve the opportunity to vote on this item, and the firefighters deserve more respect than what Turner has given them.
*Updated to include quotes from state legislators.