Firefighter settlement officially approved

The legalities are mostly over, but there are still a bunch of items to handle.

Mayor John Whitmire

A state district court judge has signed off on a settlement between the city of Houston and the firefighter union, clearing one obstacle for a $1.5 billion deal that remained a work in progress on Thursday.

With little fanfare, 234th District Court Judge Lauren Reeder on Tuesday signed a final judgment approving the settlement – and potentially bringing to a close the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association’s seven-year legal battle with the city.

If all goes well, the fire union hopes to have raises for firefighters kick in July 1. By the end of that month, members would receive back pay settlements that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

The settlement still must win approval from City Council and survive a legal challenge from Houston Fire Department command staff who were left out of the settlement, however. Meanwhile, there also are a “handful” of provisions in the union’s proposed five-year contract that have yet to be finalized, according to City Attorney Arturo Michel.

The settlement still has skeptics on Council, as a Thursday budget hearing made clear. The settlement’s practical effect on department operations also remains uncertain, with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña acknowledging that the back pay could have the unintended consequence of sparking a short-term exodus.


Reeder’s judgment is only one step in a complicated sequence that must be finished in order to put the settlement into effect by July 1, according to the city legal department. Council must approve refunding bonds for the back pay, along with the collective bargaining agreement and the overall budget that funds it. The city also must secure approval from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office that the refunding bonds meet legal standards.

Despite Reeder’s “final” judgment, a group of current and former high-ranking Fire Department officials are trying to throw a wrench into the settlement.

The settlement specifically excludes command staff members from receiving back pay, which the group alleges unfairly excludes the assistant fire chiefs nominally represented by the union.

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on April 30 denied the command staffers’ request to block Reeder from issuing a judgment, but the group’s larger appeal remains pending.

Citing the confidentiality of the settlement negotiations, the city has for weeks declined to release drafts of the proposed collective bargaining agreement.

At the fire department’s annual budget hearing Thursday, [CM Abbie] Kamin posed pointed questions about what the collective bargaining agreement contains.

Kamin said that by her reading of the agreement, Mayor John Whitmire would be forced to oust Fire Chief Samuel Peña.

Peña has served through the transition from former Mayor Sylvester Turner to Whitmire despite the enmity of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which backed Whitmire on the campaign trail last year.

Kamin on Thursday asked Peña if the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the firefighters union included a provision that “effectively writes you out of a job as Houston’s fire chief.” Peña said that would have been the case with the initial draft.

Their discussion appeared to focus on a widely-circulated draft of the agreement, which states that the city’s fire chief “shall be selected from the current or retired rank-and-file of the Houston Fire Department having served at least 15 years.”

That language would not apply to Peña, City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Thursday.

“I don’t think it requires his departure,” Michel said, adding that the final language in that section of the agreement still is being hashed out.

See here, here, and here for some background. I confess, I either missed or lost track of the part of this agreement that seems to force Chief Peña out of a job. The Chron goes into that.

One notable provision under consideration would require the mayor to select future fire chiefs from current or retired Houston Fire Department rank-and-file members with at least 15 years of service.

Peña, who served as El Paso’s fire chief before former Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed him in late 2016, does not meet this criterion. He said during a Thursday City Council hearing that, depending on the final agreement, he might be disqualified from his job.

Union president Marty Lancton and City Attorney Arturo Michel told the Houston Chronicle that the proposed clause, if approved, would not apply to Peña but only to future chiefs. Under Houston law, they said, it will still be up to Mayor John Whitmire to decide who leads one of the nation’s largest fire departments.

At the same time, Lancton said Peña’s lack of familiarity with Houston’s operations is a key reason the union is pushing for the change. Having a fire chief who came from another Texas city, Lancton said, has contributed to “years of unrest and the worst morale we’ve ever seen.”

“Houston’s challenges are unique to Houston,” Lancton said. “If there were to be a new fire chief, we absolutely believe that it needs to come from the inside, otherwise we are going to be in the same position.”

Whitmire’s team has not yet released a draft of the labor agreement, prompting complaints from some City Council members about the lack of transparency, but Michel said the administration is still considering whether to include the provision on the fire chief’s appointment.

Whitmire told the Chronicle that he does not think the clause should be in the agreement because although he believes the fire chief should come from the department, he does not want any restrictions to limit his ability to select his preferred candidate.

“We’re not going to allow a contract to mandate to me or the next mayor who you can hire or fire,” he said.

Regardless of whether the clause makes it to the final draft, by law, “the chief could remain for as long as the mayor would like,” Michel said.

Whether this agreement would force Chief Peña out or not, it seems like a bad idea to me to mandate that future Chiefs must come from within the ranks. That strikes me as a recipe for stagnation and an obstacle to change. Every organization at some point needs to break out of its old ways, and every organization needs to be able to learn from its peers. I suppose one can do that while remaining completely insular, but it sure seems like that would be the hard way to do it. I hope Council has some questions about that.

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3 Responses to Firefighter settlement officially approved

  1. David Fagan says:

    If a commentor, who has never written a blog, comments on how you write your blog, that person would be commenting about something they know nothing about.

    This agreement, including the one about the chief, is the result that has come from the problems created over the last eight years. When do the Council Members ask themselves ‘what must’ve happened for someone to consider these additions?’? Don’t forget, Pena was with the Mayor for all the past negotiations, and it wasn’t but two weeks ago that the Controller stated that if there had been raises back when Pena and Turner had the chance to give them, then it would have been a lot cheaper for the city. There was a different path chosen, one through the courts, and this is a legal settlement now. Turner is gone, but Pena still has responsibility for this, even if it is through his own inaction, and a lack of understanding about where the Houston Fire department stood at the time of his arrival.

    “every organization needs to be able to learn from its peers.”? Pena applied to Corpus Christi, and Pena is definitely not Corpus Christi’s Fire Chief at this time. Did Corpus Christi learn from their Houston peers?

  2. Meme says:

    Whitmire is a MAGA cultist, and too many of his supporters are like him.

    The latest from the racist-in-chief in Houston, Galleria does not want Latinos. Whitmire did say undocumented but no one can tell who is documented and undocumented.

  3. Pingback: Firefighter deal details released | Off the Kuff

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