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Charter amendment referendum likely #2 on its way

Pending signature verification.

The Houston firefighters’ union says it has collected enough signatures on a petition to make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration.

The city secretary now must verify at least 20,000 signatures, the minimum threshold for getting a petition-driven initiative on the ballot. The petition drive is one of two the Houston Professional Fire Fighters is pushing for this November, along with one that would give council members more power to place items on the City Council agenda.

The city secretary verified signatures for the first petition, filed in April, last week. A broader coalition is advocating for that proposal, as well.

The union has said it hopes to place both items on the November ballot, although Mayor Sylvester Turner has signaled the city may not comply with those wishes. The mayor said last week a required council vote to place the items on the ballot may not happen this year.

“There is no obligation, I think, on our part to put anything on the ballot for this year,” Turner said then.

State law does not lay out a specific timeline for when council must take that vote, though it does require it to do so. The last day to order an election for November would be Aug. 16.

When the council does vote, it has two options for selecting the date: the next uniform election date, which would be November 2021; or the next municipal or presidential election, whichever is earlier. That would be the November 2023 in this case.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said it does not matter whether the city is allowed to push off the election; it should respect the will of the petitioners and place the initiative on the November ballot. He said the union is prepared to go to court to get the charter amendments on the ballot this year.

See here for more about the other charter amendment referendum. I’m inclined to support this one, but I haven’t paid much attention to it yet so I’ll want to hear more before I make a final decision.

As for when to have the referendum, I’ll just say this much: Baseline turnout in 2021, a non-municipal election year, where the only items that will be on everyone’s ballot are the constitutional amendments (none of which are exactly well known at this point) and only some people will have actual candidates to vote for, is about 50K. Baseline turnout in 2023, when there will be an open seat Mayoral race, is at least 200K, probably at least 250K. Turnout in 2015, with HERO repeal also on the ballot, was over 270K, and in 2019, with the Metro referendum also on there, it was over 250K.

Point being, in 2021 you start with the hardcore voters, who have probably heard something about your issue and whose support you hope to earn, and seek to get lesser-engaged folks who agree with you to show up. In 2023, you have to put a lot more effort into persuasion, just because so many more people will be casting ballots, and many of them will start out knowing nothing about the issue. A lot of those less-engaged voters from scenario #1 are more likely to show up because of the Mayor’s race. Your message here is one part about introducing them to your issue, and one part about voting all the way down the ballot, because the charter amendments are at the bottom and you want to make sure they don’t miss them.

Given that, it’s a reasonable question to ask which environment you’d rather be in for the purpose of passing your referendum. It’s not clear that one is inherently more advantageous than the other, but the strategy for each is different. Needless to say, the 2023 scenario is more expensive, though a sufficiently funded referendum effort can have a significant effect on turnout, even in a 2023-type situation. The platonic ideal is for higher turnout since that is a truer reflection of the will of the people, but you want your item to pass, and you play the hand you’re dealt.

Now having said all that, I think if the petition signatures are collected and certified in time for the item to be on the next ballot, that’s when it should be voted on. I don’t know what Mayor Turner’s motivation may be for preferring to wait until 2023, which he is allowed to do. I just think we should have the votes this year.

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16 Comments

  1. David Fagan says:

    Charles Kuffner, June 23, 2021, on this issue: “Insert your favorite GIF of someone shrugging their shoulders here.”

    ” I don’t know what Mayor Turner’s motivation may be for preferring to wait until 2023″ his motivation is he doesn’t want to deal with the Firefighters’ issue, which he should. He can effectively kick this can into the next mayor’s term and effectively avoid it for 8 years. This 18% “raise”/ bonus should be a red flag to people who didn’t believe firefighters in 2017, that Houston Firefighters have been paid well below average for years and the 9% the mayor said was extraordinary was, in fact, the bulls— the firefighters said it was.

    These referendums should be an example to people who are so concerned about voting reform. If every referendum is fought tooth and nail, what direct influence do people have on their government? Signature collecting is time consuming and is put there as an avenue for citizens to push the issues that are important to them, but when your government fights even this most basic form of representation, what chances do you have?

    The mayor’s fight against these referendums should be in the same league as voter reform.

    69 days and counting……

  2. David Fagan says:

    I am proud of the Fire Fighters Union.

  3. Jason Hochman says:

    I signed their petition this time, and also the first one four or five years ago. Turner should have been impeached after the first petition didn’t get on the ballot and he blamed it on Mrs. Russell not counting signatures quickly enough. What a lousy political thing to do to the hardest working longest serving city employee, who is now deceased.

    From the out of control murders and the lack of support for a professional fire department, it is clear that the mayor is not dedicated to Operation Stay Safe. “Just stay at home with your paper mask on, and if the house burns up, you can either stay in it and cook, or step outside where a killer is waiting.”

  4. Ross says:

    It was actually the fault of the Secretary that the votes took so long to count. She should have been forced to retire at that point.

    This is all just more rent seeking by the firefighters union. I am tired of their BS. They can all just leave, now, for all I care. And they can take their gold plated pensions with them.

  5. Manny says:

    Jason, you don’t vote so getting it on the ballot will allow others who do vote to vote against it or for it.

    David, thanks to you I will not vote for it, have not decided whether I will vote against it.

  6. Jason Hochman says:

    Ross,
    it wasn’t votes that took too long to count. It was the signatures on the petition, which were required to get the item onto the ballot so that it could be put to a vote.

    I’m not sure how you know that it was actually the fault of Mrs. Russell. In my experience, she was the most dedicated, hardworking, polite, and helpful person in the entire city hall. Obviously she could not have verified and counted every single signature without her staff helping. My belief is that she would’ve gotten it done if Turner had wanted it done, but, again, maybe you have some inside information that I don’t know.

    Your ageism is awful. Next thing you will be wanting to force other octogenarians such as Biden, Pelosi, Maxine Waters, to retire and return to their agrarian lives.

    I can certainly agree with some criticisms of the firefighters union. But, you don’t want them all to leave. HFD is a professional fire fighting operation that typically uses an aggressive interior attack for fighting structure fires. It entails more risk, such as being injured or killed in a collapse or flash over. But it allows better rescue and salvage and less damage to exposures. HFD also must respond to the daily carnage on the roads, with crashes increasing every year. Houston is also the arson capital of the universe.

    Therefore, you don’t want them to pack up and leave. Sure, there can be some criticism of HFD, just like the cops–there are some problems, that doesn’t mean that you abolish police. When they leave, you are going to be sad.

  7. David Fagan says:

    The fire fighters have been warning the city about the state of their department for years. This state of affairs were talked about years ago. The next problem this city is going to face is funding their liability. Reason I’m bringing this up now it’s that the fire union has been warning the city about it. With arbitration, all this would have been done a long time ago, with less court costs.

  8. Kibitzer says:

    As a general proposition, arbitration is not that much different from litigation, nor any cheaper, but it’s less transparent (no public record, ergo secret). If the arbitration is binding, the arbitration award is the equivalent of the judgment obtained in court; if it’s nonbinding, it will still have to be litigated (unless the Supreme Court concludes that the district court role provided for by the Legislature in these types of labor disputes amounta to an unconstitutional delegation of power to the judicial branch, or the City relents and agrees on a deal that is satisfactory to both sides. Given that the SCOTX appeal is pending, nothing much may happen until the supreme court grants the city’s petition for review (to be followed by a decision on the merits) or requests a response and orders full briefing, thereby sending a signal that they intend to decide whether the Houston COA got it right in the underlying appeals.

  9. David Fagan says:

    67 days and counting……

  10. David Fagan says:

    66 days and counting……

  11. David Fagan says:

    65 days and counting……

  12. David Fagan says:

    64 days and counting……

  13. David Fagan says:

    63 days and counting……

  14. David Fagan says:

    62 days and counting……

  15. […] here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, […]

  16. David Fagan says:

    61 days and counting……