Council narrowly agrees on law firm to defend against Prop B

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City council members discuss items on the agenda during a meeting Wed., November 28, 2018.

City council members approved a contract to hire a law firm to defend the city against any potential litigation that may arise from the voter-approved firefighter pay parity charter amendment best known as "prop b."

After nearly two hours of discussion, the council voted 9-7 for the firm, but at half the original cost. The original item was for a budget of up to $1,090,000 with the firm Norton Rose, but the council approved cutting the budget, approving up to $500,000 before passing the contract.

Prop B was approved by voters 59 percent to 41 percent at the beginning of November. The measure forces the city, via charter amendment, to pay firefighters the same as police officers of similar rank and experience. Mayor Sylvester Turner and city controller Chris Brown estimated the cost of the measure at roughly $100 million in its first year of implementation.

At the council meeting, Turner said the need for outside legal assistance is clear given how thin the legal department is stretched with other ongoing legal issues.

Council member Dwight Boykins said the fire union is willing to negotiate the terms of the pay increase as to reduce the cost and impact to the city. But Turner insists there is a legal question about whether or not collective bargaining with the fire union is even possible with a charter amendment now on the books. The novel question comes down to whether state law about collective bargaining supersedes the new charter amendment, thus the need for legal representation, Turner said.

"Sylvester Turner now expects Houston taxpayers to pay for his million-dollar attack on Prop B voters and Houston firefighter families," said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighter's Association. "The mayor's vindictiveness is now surpassed only by his dishonesty about the implementation of Prop B. Contrary to the mayor's claims, state law is clear: a legally negotiated contract with firefighters would settle this issue, once and for all. Houstonians need to recognize that the mayor is willing to destabilize public safety to settle political scores. The mayor refuses to meet firefighters or even call to discuss a constructive implementation of Prop B."

The discussion at times became heated about whether the council would be seen as subverting the will of the voters. Council member Karla Cisneros said the long-term implications of voting for the contract would breed mistrust with voters for years to come.

Turner also defended the choice against media questions about campaign donations made to the political action committee against Prop B. The firm's PAC gave $15,000 in the days before being selected for the contract. The city has used this firm for several other city-related cases and its donation played no role in its selection, Turner said.

"City staff is not involved in the Protect Houston PAC, and could not have been aware of contributions to the PAC until campaign finance reports were filed on October 29," said Norton Rose partner Neil Thomas, who served as the PAC's treasurer. "We were informed that we had been selected by the City legal staff before our contribution to the Protect Houston PAC was made, and we did not discuss that contribution with any staff, either before or after our response to the Request for Qualifications was filed."

It's not known who responded to the informal solicitation for the contract. In response to an ABC13 open records request, the city asked the Texas attorney general to keep the list secret. Only two law firms gave to the PAC. The other firm who donated was not a finalist for the contract, city documents show.

No legal challenged has yet been filed in the courts.

Voting yes were council members Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Dave Martin, Steve Le, Mike Laster, Martha Castex-Tatum, Robert Gallegos and David Robinson. Voting no was Mike Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Dwight Boykins, Greg Travis, Karla Cisneros, Mike Knox and Jack Christie. Council member Amanda Edwards was absent.

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