City, firefighters ordered to Prop B mediation by judge

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter, Rose-Ann Aragon - Reporter, Andy Cerota - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - A judge has ordered the city of Houston and firefighters to mediation in order to solve the puzzle of implementing the Proposition B pay parity.

The ruling handed down by District Court Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the two sides to work out their differences with an impartial mediator.

The judge gave the two sides until Monday to agree on a mediator.

There have been a lot of sticking points in terms of how to implement Prop B, from which members of the Houston Fire Department would be eligible for raises to incentive pay categories.

It is not yet clear if each and every one of those controversies would be addressed in mediation.

If the two sides can't mutually agree on a mediator, the court will choose one.  And it's important to point out the mediation is not binding.

"If a judge thinks (mediation) is something the parties must do, obviously we will respect her opinion," city attorney Ron Lewis said.

"We've been saying for months, we welcome a third party to look at this," Marty Lancton, head of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued the following response to the court's order:

"This is a non-binding court-ordered mediation among Police, Fire and the City. Though it is non-binding, the City will comply. What is important is that the mediation occur as soon as possible, preferably Monday or Tuesday (April 22-23). By law, the City budget must balance by the end of June, and where a reduction in personnel is necessary to balance the budget, employees must be given a 60-day notice prior to July 1."

Earlier story

City officials and representatives with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association were in civil court Thursday for a hearing with Garrison. The big question of the hearing was, does state law pre-empt Prop B?

The voter-approved ordinance requires Houston firefighters to be paid the same as their police department counterparts.

Attorneys for city government asked Garrison to determine whether Prop B is contradictory to state law, specifically Chapter 174 -- the state’s collective bargaining law. City attorneys claimed that the proposition's fatal flaw is that it doesn't include any language or mention of a required portion of Chapter 174:

SUBCHAPTER B. CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT AND RIGHT TO ORGANIZE

Sec. 174.021. PREVAILING WAGE AND WORKING CONDITIONS REQUIRED. A political subdivision that employs fire fighters, police officers, or both, shall provide those employees with compensation and other conditions of employment that are:

(1)  substantially equal to compensation and other conditions of employment that prevail in comparable employment in the private sector;  and

(2)  based on prevailing private sector compensation and conditions of employment in the labor market area in other jobs that require the same or similar skills, ability, and training and may be performed under the same or similar conditions.

City attorneys spent more than an hour arguing that because Prop B's language focuses on public police officers, salaries and conditions and makes no mention, basis or comparison to private sector elements as mentioned in Chapter 174, Prop B contradicts state law, which makes Prop B invalid. Government lawyers took it a step further, stating that Prop B is unconstitutional.

“The city's interest is knowing what the correct law is. There is, to me, a fairly obvious conflict between the law. The prop b and chapter 174,” said Houston City Attorney Ronald Lewis.

In a March letter, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said:

"Citizen-driven charter amendments like Prop B are not always carefully-drafted, much less fully-vetted documents when they arrive at City Hall. When they are not, there is next to nothing a city can do to correct even the most glaring constitutional and legal errors in a citizen-driven charter amendment. A city’s only meaningful opportunity to save itself from unconstitutional additions to the City Charter, or obvious efforts like Prop B, comes after the proposed charter amendment passes. After an election, such determinations should be made by our courts.”

Attorneys representing the Houston firefighters argued that when voters approved the pay parity amendment, they knew what they were voting on and got it right when they did.

“The city and the police are trying to invalidate the law. We believe that the law supports the pay parity amendment which is the current law of the city of Houston. It should be implemented. We've heard from the mayor that they are going to implement it. We heard that back in December and it has not happened yet,” said Travis Sales.

Garrison is taking the arguments made by both sides under advisement and will soon let both parties know when they can expect a ruling.

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