Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.
Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.
“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”
The mayor dismissed the criticism.
“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”
Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”
Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.
My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?
David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.
That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.
“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”
Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.
State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”
Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.