HOUSTON - A hearing over layoffs that are planned during the implementation of Proposition B began Monday afternoon.
Houston District D Councilman Dwight Boykins chaired the hearing, which concentrated on whether the details of the layoff vote were concealed from council members.
When the Houston City Council voted 10-6 last week in favor of the measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, some leaders claim they didn’t know that voting "yes" also meant they were in favor of demoting higher-ranking firefighters to backfill the positions included in the layoffs.
“Questions have been raised about the lack of transparency with this item,” Boykins said.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena spoke at Monday’s hearing. He said that, over the past two months, he met privately with most council members and laid out the restructuring scenario for them.
“Your staff was there. The question was asked: How do the demotions work?” Pena said.
How many in the Fire Department would be demoted? No one has said for sure.
"That's the ethical question we have. If there was knowledge or there wasn't knowledge, why or why not?” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Lancton, who gave a presentation at Monday’s hearing, believes the number could be in the hundreds and that many firefighters were blindsided by the news.
“Our concern is simply the fact there simply seems to be a lot of stuff going on that we are not even aware of. This is not, in our opinion, how good governance works, or good public policy. If we people want to be transparent and take a position, we have no problem with that. But it deserves scrutiny and it should, as good government should,” Lancton said.
Pena also said 70% of those who would be demoted would receive a pay increase. The remaining 30% would not but their pay would not be cut as a result of the demotion.
The meeting was contentious, at times. At one point, two council members walked out. Councilwoman Ellen Cohen called the hearing inappropriate because she felt they were taking up a topic that had nothing to do with ethics. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig expressed a similar concern and said she thought the hearing could potentially be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Proposition B requires Houston firefighters to be paid the same as their Police Department counterparts.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has said that layoffs will be required to implement the voter-approved ordinance within the 3.5-year time frame that the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association wants.
Another court-mandated mediation session between city leaders and union representatives is scheduled for later this week.
The video stream below was provided by the city of Houston.
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