Houston Fire Department battle heats up as city of Houston fires union president

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The city of Houston Thursday confirmed it had suspended union president Marty Lancton indefinitely, government speak for a firing. It comes six weeks after Lancton says the city stopped paying his salary and is the latest in a bitter battle between firefighters, the department and Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Under the last several union contracts, the president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president is paid an HFD salary but assigned full time to union duties. Houston police officers have a similar agreement, but union officials tell ABC13 officers donate time off to fund their union president's salary. The last contract between the firefighters, the union and the city of Houston expired in 2017. Since then, it has been near constant battle in courts of law and public opinion as firefighters push for their first raise in more than a decade.

Lancton will remain president of the union. His firing was from the Houston Fire Department only.

The firing does appear to have odd timing. Lancton says he was last paid by the city on December 3, 2020. His paycheck was just $2.88, thousands short of what he normally receives. He says he didn't receive any money on the next payday. Despite not paying Lancton, the city didn't fire him until HFD Fire Chief Sam Pena signed the letter on January 19, 2021.

In the letter from Pena to Lancton, the chief writes, Lancton was "Absent Without Leave (AWOL) on multiple consecutive days." The letter says Lancton was told of the violation on Dec. 3, the day his pay was initially docked.

"[Firefighter] Lancton was absent without leave beyond 3 consecutive days with no notification to his supervisor. I find that the totality of the evidence discovered in this investigation indicates a blatant disregard for HFD Rules & Regulations... FF Lancton's blatant refusal to comply with a lawful order and flout my authority as Fire Chief will negatively impact my ability to maintain discipline and good order with HFD in furtherance of its mission."

ABC13 requests for documents detailing the change have not been responded to. In an EEOC complaint against Pena and the city, Lancton calls it "retaliation" and "wage theft."

This latest salvo started in late fall when Lancton was re-assigned to the Houston Fire Department's training academy.

Lancton says he was unaware of why the switch was made. Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena explained to ABC13 that since the contract had expired in 2017, there was no longer an agreement to assign Lancton to union duties.

Pena explained he had used a bank of hours donated by firefighters, but that it had run out.

"We cannot give away hours," Pena told ABC13.

Lancton claims to have a memo codifying the union assignment from 2019. Pena says it was never signed by Lancton, which Lancton disputes. In Lancton's EEOC complaint, Pena is quoted saying the memo is no longer "on the table."

While Lancton has been suspended, he claims the city continues to contact him for union duties.

According to a statement, "The city of Houston's political and legal war on Houston firefighters has reached a new low. Nothing this mayor and his politically appointed fire administrator do at this point will deter us from our mission for the city's nearly 4,000 firefighters and paramedics. My duties as president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 are not changing. Our fight for workplace fairness goes on. I imagine we will see the City back in yet another court and we look forward to seeing the sworn testimony of the mayor, the fire chief, the fire department command staff, and others about their latest attack on firefighters and our union."

The firing is not likely to improve the morale of a department that hasn't seen a wage increase in more than a decade.

13 Investigates has reported last year that HFD was seeing record departures of firefighters before retirement age. In 2019, 70% of HFD personnel who quit left before they were eligible to retire. That's more than a 400% increase. Many blamed low morale and higher wages in surrounding cities.

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