Mayor Turner scolds council over firefighter's pay petition

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Mayor Sylvester Turner, in his first council meeting in two weeks, had strong words for council members on a petition for "pay parity" for Houston's firefighters.

Five council members last week called for a special meeting to take up the ballot initiative and place it in front of voters, sidestepping Turner's normally sole authority to place items on a meeting agenda. Four of the five showed up for the meeting: Dwight Boykins, Greg Travis, Brenda Stardig, and Mike Kubosh. Martha Castex-Tatum signed the memo for the special meeting but didn't attend. The meeting didn't happen because not enough people showed up.

Turner, out of the country at the time, said the meeting wasn't necessary because the process was already underway.

Turner this week lashed out at council members, telling them they couldn't put an item in front of voters without making sure it was "properly vetted" and complained that putting forward an item without a cost didn't make sense for those on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

"Maybe that's not a conservative position anymore, I don't know," Turner said.

But Turner's assessment of cost and the duty he has to put it on the agenda for a vote are two separate things, said Houston Professional Firefighter's Association president Marty Lancton.

The association is happy to talk about cost all day long, but it has nothing to do with the simple fact it has to go in front of voters, Lancton said.

The reliance on cost now is at odd with what city attorney Ron Lewis told a judge in this case three months ago, the union president said.

"If there is a significant number of votes... they will put it on the ballot at the point they determine. Nothing about the budget process affects that," Lewis said according to a court transcript.

Turner said his administration's estimate puts the cost of the measure, if it passes the voters, at $79 million a year. Turner estimates it's a 20 to 25 percent raise for a group that hasn't had a raise in years.

"I support firefighters. I appreciate what they do," Turner said. "But I love my daughter quite a bit. And over 30 years, when she asked me for things, I said no."

Turner points out he's offered firefighters raises several times in the past that the firefighters have turned down.

In a presentation prepared for Thursday's meeting, the city says the HPFFA "walked away" from those pay increases.

READ: City's presentation planned for Thursday on cost of fire pay initiative

Last week, a spokesperson for the HPFFA claimed Turner's intent was to engage in a campaign against the measure, amounting to electioneering.

Wednesday, Turner spent the better part of an hour in a back and forth with council members about why the measure was expensive, problematic, "vague and ambiguous and unenforceable" by his administration.

"This is a campaign," Kubosh said.

"You made a big speech," Turner snapped back. "You have a responsibility as a council member to tell people how much it's going to cost."

The issue is set to come in front of the council's subcommittee dealing with finance Thursday. Council member Dave Martin, who chairs the committee, invited HPFFA present Marty Lancton to answer questions about the petition, but the invitation was declined, Martin said.

Lancton said the invitation came only two days ago and a union's appearance at a city council committee meeting was improper.

"This city has already started campaigning and politicking," Lancton said. "They continue to fail in their ministerial duty to put this on the ballot."

Turner said the item would come in front of the city council Aug. 8 and council could decide when to schedule it for voters. But that too caused a stir among council members.

Kubosh said if another charter amendment passes this year, city rules require a three-year cooling off period, meaning the firefighter's petition would have to wait until 2021.

Turner said the situation was a hypothetical and it was still up to the council to approve the ballot date.

The meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. in city hall chambers.

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