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Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.


“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”


“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

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  1. Manny Barrera says:

    My understanding is that HPD will file lawsuits. The City should not file a suit.

    The law is what some judge says it is, because it does not say something does not mean that it cannot be inferred.

    1.3 million for lawyers would be better spent on keeping some jobs.

  2. RoB says:

    It’s not complicated, the answer is yes. Hopefully the Mayor will get over losing a vote and bargain something with the firefighters so there aren’t layoffs. It’s a bad look to layoff firefighters out of spite.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    Turner should absolutely be cutting budgets and laying off people to pay for the voter approved raises. The will of the people has been made clear. They WANT less city service. They want city employees laid off. Give it to them.

    Now the FF’s want to ‘negotiate’ after they have won at the ballot box? Sorry guys, it doesn’t work that way. You won! Celebrate your victory! Enjoy your extra money.

    For all those who get laid off, hey, sucks to be y’all. There are at least a few FF jobs open, though, like the guy who posted something on his Facebook page and got fired. Maybe one of the laid off HFD folks could apply for the three part time jobs he had.

  4. Steve Houston says:

    Manny, I’m not sure what legal standing the cops have to sue so that threat sounds like a lot of their hot air to me. The law isn’t what some judge says, nor the following appellate court, so much as what the state supreme court says it is or SCOTUS if the law conflicts with federal law. One thing though, 250k of that 1.3 million is for legal action on a different matter, not fighting Prop B. Couldn’t the Mayor get a legal opinion from the state attorney general?

    Bill, I have to agree with you as the mayor has maintained for many months now that if this measure passed, there would be wholesale layoffs. He said it in a bunch of town hall meetings, repeatedly at city council, and in front of every news source around numerous times so anyone mischaracterizing his stance as coming out of nowhere only after the vote is just flat out lying. Jason H. might have missed how many times the mayor was quoted as such on this very website but it was more than a few times this year.

    It’s funny but for all the text of the petition, I did not see anywhere on it that gave HFD’s union the authority to interpret the specifics of the law. Despite what the legal guns-for-hire claim, I’m willing to bet that every instance of collective bargaining over riding state law they’ve come up with was when a new collective bargaining agreement was going into place, not that a previously existing agreement erased a new law/Charter Amendment. What the people voted on included no provision for spreading out the raises, no allowance for negotiating specifics, and did not empower HFD’s union in any way to speak for the voters. Once the petition was submitted, it was no longer theirs (the union) or under their control.

    If the union wants to help, it can offer incentives for long time employees to retire early, saving some of the jobs of the less senior employees they’ve screwed over or it can make an offer to join the legal action by the city and accept a set amount of 10% or so starting in the next fiscal year, dispensing with the greedy ploy altogether. Otherwise, let the newer employees go while they can still get seasonal jobs for the holidays, said employees can sign up to join the multitude of volunteer departments while they wait for FD spots to open across the state.

  5. We’re still waiting for houstonians to learn simple arithmetic so we can repeal the $12.27 revenue cap

  6. Manny Barrera says:

    Well, it ain’t for me nor you to determine standing. Appeals Courts hear thousands of cases, State Supreme Court maybe 100. District Courts tens of thousands. So we are long way from a state court decision. Several officers have told me that they are considering filing suit. Whether it happens or not, we will see.

    Personally I think they should if they have to lay off people that are not critical, like half the council staff and at least half of the mayor’s staff. That is just a beginning. I remember when council members only had one staff member.

    They could quit paving over and over, in our neighborhood the asphalt is almost covering the storm drainage inlets.

    State Courts, that includes Supreme, make their own laws when it is convenient for the decision they want to reach.

    The only reason they are supreme is because they have the last word, but as one smart dude said, let them send their army out to enforce them.

  7. C.L. says:

    All folks heard prior to the vote was ‘Firefighters are underpaid and we should earn as much as the HPD folks’. So, are firefighters underpaid ? Sure. Should they earn as much as HPD personnel ? Maybe. Is paying HFD guys the same as HPD guys going to have extremely detrimental City service result ? Seems like the only one asking that question was Sly, and no one bothered to explore that probable outcome.

    Whoops ?

    @Steve… Couldn’t the City get an opinion for the State AG ? You talking about Ken Paxton ? You want him to weigh in on this ??

  8. Jason Hochman says:

    Hi Steve, yes I’ve seen the mayor quoted about that, however, even the Houston Chronicle, usually a supporter for the mayor, had a piece stating that layoffs aren’t necessary. Meanwhile, the mayor did approve a contract to his [former] law firm. OK. Obviously as a career politician he uses his position to reward his friends and punish his opponents. Mayor Turner saw to it that the petition for HFD was not verified for as long as possible. He should be impeached. How quickly everyone has forgotten the fire fighters killed in the hotel fire about 4 years ago. Or the fire fighters who rescued the construction worker from the burning apartment in Montrose right before that. No mention of how Steve Le donated the money to buy a rescue boat for the fire department. Now, I would sell the HPD helicopters, and use that money to buy more rescue boats for HFD. If I become mayor, I will fire the chief of police, and many under performing HPD officers and immediately sign MOUs with the other local law enforcement agencies to patrol in lieu of HPD. No need for overlap. I would get HPD a bureau of educated detectives to solve the increasing violent crime and home invasions and burglaries, and also to concentrate on drunk and aggressive drivers. No more goofy prostitution stings for the Chronicle to publish the mugshots. No more arresting robot prostitutes. And no more segregation.

  9. Steve Houston says:

    Jason, that piece in the Chronicle did not state that layoffs weren’t necessary, it had two lawyers saying the city could negotiate its way out of the proposition and two legal expert professors that completely disagreed. Absent a firmer legal basis than that, as Manny points out it is up to whatever judge it comes before, even that not definitive since the losing side will appeal.

    As far as things like awarding legal contracts, or any other kind of contracts for that matter, if the city council felt the law firm was unable to do quality work or think something was fishy with it, they had the chance to speak out and vote it down. It doesn’t follow that it is an automatic conflict of interest no matter how much the mayor’s haters want it to be, as long as everyone knew the connection, you’d need some proof it was in bad faith to make the claim stick.

    As far as the impeachment process, HFD’s union made similar claims yet failed in court to prove the mayor was behind the delayed count. The city secretary accepted that it was on her, not him, and was taken to task over it by the judge. But no one forgets HFD, HPD, or other groups have lost lives in the performance of their duties, if your fallback argument is going to drag such deaths up any time you don’t get your way, you’re going to lose support from people that already accept that the losses were tragedies. Using emotional arguments instead of relying on good public policy makes no sense if you have anything of substance to work with.

    As far as you being elected, I’m not going to hold my breath though I would concur with the idea of firing the police chief. His focus on feel good social policies over substance has him chasing whatever pops in his head at a given moment, his preference of sending his troops to community outreach meetings instead of focusing on solving crimes or coming up with ways to prevent such crimes is plenty reason to me. Those prostitution stings being labeled death blows to human trafficking is crazy enough but I’d be curious where you were going to find more educated cops to serve in their investigative divisions, a quick look shows HPD is one of the most educated police departments in the country (I learned that while researching HFD union’s claims of incentive pay).

    As far as selling helicopters to buy boats, such things have to be evaluated on their individual merits; a daily use helicopter compared to a once a year boat might make sense depending on the specifics;both require sustained training and maintenance yet have various uses. The city has spent more on HFD equipment under Mayor Turner than any of his recent peers, though I suspect that will change if Prop B is upheld or the mayor seeks to minimize layoffs.

    But until you start posting how you’re going to pass family leave in the city, start a public bank, or Google a bunch of crazy ideas for your campaign website, I just can’t say that Joe will vote for you. He’s the expert in everything, just ask him… 🙂

    PS: CL, while he’s not a legal heavyweight by most standards, such an opinion could fend off some of the weaker legal attacks or the lame sour grapes commentary out there.