The total mess that is the Turner v. firefighters, explained

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Courtesy of the Defender Network

If you live in the City of Houston, you’ve likely noticed protracted political, public relations and legal battles between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 over the issue of “pay parity” and something known as Prop B. Maybe you like firefighters, but also notice the city has financial problems. Maybe you also remember Fire campaigned hard for Turner in the 2015 mayor’s race, and was a key player in his victory. Now the bromance is over.  Maybe you find the whole situation confusing. You’re not alone. So what’s it all about?

In the November 2018 midterm election, at the end of a lengthy ballot full of judicial and county administrative races, City of Houston voters encountered two propositions. The second was Prop B, which asked voters to amend the city charter to “compensate City firefighters in a manner and amount that is at least equal and comparable by rank and seniority with the compensation provided City police officers” – in other words pay parity between fire and police.

Mayor Turner and others opposed Prop B, arguing while firefighters deserve a raise, its passage would exacerbate an already big budget deficit and force city layoffs. Firefighters campaigned aggressively for the measure, banking on a large midterm electorate and their members’ broad popularity with the public, and it passed by nearly 20 points. But the real battle had just begun.

For months the two sides went at each other. Despite being thumped at the ballot box, Turner stuck to his fiscal argument, threatening layoffs and eventually sending out pink slips. Fire, led by its vocal union president Marty Lancton, trumpeted the “voters have spoken” line, financial realities be damned.

Over six months, an already adversarial situation deteriorated. Dueling news conferences, Twitter wars, failed negotiations and court-ordered mediation, a total mess.

Two weeks ago, Turner sent layoff notices to 220 firefighters. A few days later, the City of Houston issued its first lump-sum payments to firefighters mandated by Prop B, totaling more than $27 million. A few days after that, Turner released his budget for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1, 2019, and which included more than 300 layoffs to close a $179 million budget deficit. A grim outlook, to say the least.

Meanwhile, 2019 is an election year for the Mayor and City Council, and needless to say Fire has actively stoked the fires for change at City Hall. They’ve relentlessly attacked Mayor Turner and some council members, provided ammunition for announced opponents and aggressively recruited others. And by most accounts, they’ve damaged Turner, though perhaps not fatally so.

Add to the mix a months long legal challenge from the Houston Police Officers Union, supported by the City of Houston, alleging Prop B violates state law governing collective bargaining, and is unconstitutional. Late last year, Republican judge Randy Wilson sided with Fire, just before leaving the bench after being swept out of office in a Democratic landslide in Harris County. It looked like Prop B was here to stay.

Yesterday, however, Wilson’s Democratic successor, Judge Tanya Garrison, dropped a legal bomb on this whole Prop B fiasco. In a one-page ruling, released, coincidentally during the weekly meeting of Houston City Council, Garrison did a 180 and sided with Police, ruling Prop B violates state law and is unconstitutional. Boom.

Minutes after the ruling, Mayor Turner announced layoffs and demotions would be rescinded, and his plans to negotiate raises with fire fighters anew. And they all lived happily ever after, right? Not exactly.

Fire wasted no time in announcing its plan to appeal the ruling, and its political animus against Turner and his allies shows no signs of abating. With more than three months remaining before candidate filing for the November city election closes, the plot may only thicken.

Can’t we all just get along?

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