HOUSTON, TX — In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five City Council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.
The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.
In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.
The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.
Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for 10 a.m. Friday.
Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.
Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.
“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.
Stardig said she supported the move in part because the administration had not provided a clear timeline on the matter.
“We have to protect the citizens’ right to petition their government,” she said. “We have an obligation to bring this forward. They were counted by the city secretary and verified.”
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston professional Fire Fighters Association, cheered the news, noting that firefighters gathered voters’ signatures and submitted their petition roughly a year ago.
State law sets no time limit on when charter petitions must be validated. When their petition had not been verified as of last December, Lancton and other fire union leaders sued the city, hoping to force it to count their signatures. The firefighters won that case earlier this year, and City Secretary Anna Russell reported in May that the petition contained a sufficient number of signatures to go before voters.
In the months since then, with an Aug. 20 deadline approaching to schedule items for the November ballot, the firefighters had grown concerned that their initiative could be thwarted again even though council is required by state law to place verified petitions before voters.
“Why is it appropriate to wait until the very end if this is simply a process under state law? This has been something the citizens of Houston have clearly said they want a say in, and it should have been on (the ballot) in November of 2017,” Lancton said. “The mayor’s secrecy and just utter refusal to discuss what the plans are for this ballot initiate just raise incredibly troubling questions.”
Turner’s chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, told council staff in a Monday night email that the mayor had not been consulted before the council members’ memo was submitted.
Hunter wrote that Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the council’s budget committee, had agreed over the weekend to schedule the issue for a committee hearing July 26 and had discussed placing the referendum item on the council’s normal Aug. 8 meeting agenda. Martin confirmed that account, saying Turner emailed him as much at 9:02 a.m. Friday.
Turner on Tuesday said preliminary estimates put the cost of implementing the proposal at $236 million over three years, an average of $79 million a year, and noted that the firefighters had rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise over three years before taking the city to court over their contract. That case is ongoing. Houston faces projected deficits of more than $100 million in each of the next five years.
Lancton disputed Turner’s characterization of the contract talks and stressed that firefighters have seen their base pay increase by just 3 percent since 2011 while taking deep cuts to their pension benefits.
“It is important for people to hear all the facts surrounding this referendum. Literally, it will put us back into a deep financial crisis immediately after pension reform, which the (firefighters) didn’t support,” Turner said. “This is not about parity with police. This is everything about a huge pay raise, which the city cannot afford.”
Martin said he is frustrated that the entire exercise over the special meeting could have been avoided if he had stepped away during a family vacation in Nashville to inform his colleagues of the mayor’s Friday email.
“Should I have immediately sent out a message and said, ‘Guys, we’re going to have a special BFA (Budget and Fiscal Affairs committee)’? I was on vacation with my family,” he said. “I was waiting until Monday. If you’re going to blame somebody, blame me.”
Regardless, Martin said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.
“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”
It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.
City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.
“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”