A judge issued a temporary restraining order Nov. 30 on a city of Houston charter amendment that would give Houston firefighters a pay increase to match the salary of Houston police officers of similar rank and seniority.
State District Judge Kristen Hawkins issued the order, which temporarily halts the implementation of the amendment, after the Houston Police Officers’ Union filed a lawsuit against the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association arguing the amendment is unconstitutional because it violates state law. The judge also set a hearing on the issue for Dec. 14.
According to the petition filed with the Harris County District Clerk’s office, the HPOU argues the amendment violates a state law requiring firefighters to be paid comparable to private sector jobs of similar training and not other municipal workers. In the petition, the HPOU also argues the amendment is unconstitutional because it interferes with the HPOU’s ability to collectively bargain by tying firefighter pay to police officer pay.
Two days before the HPOU filed its petition, Houston City Council approved a measure at its Nov. 28 meeting to seek a $500,000 contract with a law firm to determine the legality of the amendment in court. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said according to state law, firefighters should negotiate pay raises through collective bargaining with the city.
“[The amendment] and collective bargaining cannot exist at the same time—something has to give,” Turner said.
During the meeting, Turner said a judge is best suited to determine if the amendment—which voters approved as Proposition B during the Nov. 6 election—or the state law establishing collective bargaining should take precedence. He said the city questioned the validity of the amendment before it was approved by voters, but state law prohibits propositions from being challenging in court prior to being approved.
“Now that [the amendment]has been approved, it can be voted on and challenged,” Turner said. “I think the people of Houston deserve to know whether or not the proposition they voted on was valid in the first place.”
In a statement the HPFFA released on Nov. 30, HPFFA President Marty Lancton said by pursuing litigation, Turner and the HPOU are defying the will of the voters who approved the amendment.
“Houston firefighters are grateful for the support of the 292,000 voters who passed [Proposition] B and we’re confident we will ultimately prevail in court,” Lancton said in a statement. “When that happens, [Mayor] Sylvester Turner will be forced to equally value the city’s first responders as the voters demanded.”
Turner and other city of Houston officials have said the raise mandated in the amendment could cost the city up to $100 million a year and would result in layoffs of hundreds of city employees.
Meanwhile, Lancton said the pay raise is necessary because Houston firefighters are underpaid compared to police officers and other fire departments around the state.