The City of Houston, along with unions representing its firefighters and police, have been ordered to mediation by a state judge overseeing litigation related to Proposition B, which mandated equal pay for firefighters and police and became law in Houston on Nov. 6, 2018. What remains in question is whether the locally-approved measure violates existing state law.
For the second time since Election Day, a judge is tasked with making that call.
"Obviously, there is a serious issue that a serious judge is working very hard to resolve," said Houston City Attorney Ron Lewis.
Under the supervision of Lewis, litigator Reagan Brown argued that Houston firefighters bypassed multiple legal avenues to improve their compensation by taking their pay concerns directly to voters, an action which he said triggers a constitutional conflict with a state law known as the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act.
Pushing back, attorneys for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association contend the local referendum granting pay parity is "presumed valid" under Texas law and any attempt to overturn "the will of the people" would be very difficult by design.
"You start with the assumption that the voters are the democracy in Houston, as much so as the city council or Mayor, and they decided overwhelmingly, almost by 60 percent, that firefighters should be paid equally with comparable rank police officers," said attorney Travis Sales, who represents the firefighters union.
Saying all sides in this battle are "gambling with the future of families," Texas District Judge Tanya Garrison urged a return to the negotiating table with the help of a mediator, an option that the firefighters union accepts, but the City has resisted.
"If the judge says that it's something the parties must do, obviously we will respect her opinion," said Lewis after the hearing.
Absent both an agreement and a definitive court ruling, city council is set to vote on layoffs next week, a decision which carries hefty consequences.
"There has never been a mayor or a council that has ever laid off a Houston firefighter and I think that includes during the Great Depression," said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.
By late Thursday afternoon, Judge Garrison, who saif she needs as much as a month to deliver a ruling, had turned her request for mediation between the parties into an order.
"One of you is going to win and one of you is going to lose," said Garrison in an apparent bid to spark compromise.
The city was seeking to have Proposition B, voter-approved pay parity for firefighters, declared unconstitutional thus, “void and unenforceable” in 157th District Court.
Attorneys for the Houston Police Officers Union argue that Proposition B is legally invalid because existing state law demands that firefighter pay be based on comparable private sector pay, not police compensation.
Attorneys for the firefighters union also say the pay parity approved by voters sets a “floor” of compensation for its members based on police salaries, but does not prohibit additional raises based on private sector pay. City of Houston lawyers calls that a prohibited “double barrel privilege.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner released the following response to the court order on Thursday:
This is a non-binding court-ordered mediation among Police, Fire and the City. Though it is non-binding, the City will comply. What is important is that the mediation occur as soon as possible, preferably Monday or Tuesday (April 22-23). By law, the City budget must balance by the end of June, and where a reduction in personnel is necessary to balance the budget, employees must be given a 60-day notice prior to July 1.