A court-appointed mediator could not help the City of Houston and local firefighters union agree on a phased-in implementation plan for Proposition B.
The two parties, along with the local police officers union, held at least three negotiation sessions after Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered non-binding mediation on April 18. Mediator David Matthiesen, in a Friday letter filed with the court, declared the negotiations at impasse.
Garrison is presiding over a lawsuit filed by the Houston Police Officers Union that challenges the legality of Prop B, which voters approved in November to grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience.
“It is now in Judge Garrison’s hands to rule one way or another,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a Friday news conference.
Turner said the firefighters union rejected the city’s offer for a three-and-a-half-year phase-in plan that would not include layoffs or demotions. Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the union made a counteroffer for a four-year phase-in before the mediator declared an impasse.
Lancton also said the city’s offer came with a caveat that was unacceptable to the union. He said the mayor demanded that the firefighters union declare Prop B unconstitutional, which is the legal argument being made by the city and police officers union.
“If we all agree it’s unconstitutional, there is no more question in court,” Lancton said. “Because if all parties agree, then you have just upended the will of 300,000 voters. We’re the only group that is trying to protect the will and democracy of 300,000 voters.”
Turner said the city is in the process of immediately implementing Prop B and will begin mailing checks to firefighters totaling about $31 million — which represents pay raises effective Jan. 1 — on May 10. To offset the cost of immediate implementation, the city also has sent 60-day layoff notices to 67 fire cadets, 220 firefighters and 47 other municipal employees.
Lancton said 454 more firefighters have received demotion notices.
“We need to find a way to absorb and to achieve the will of the voters in a way that does not threaten the public safety, it doesn’t threaten our employees’ wellbeing and livelihoods,” Houston fire chief Samuel Pena said. “Not only fire department, but there are municipal employees out there that are also being affected. The community is being affected, and this has got to stop.”
Lancton said the firefighters union is willing to continue negotiating with the city on a phased-in implementation plan. He also said the city’s proposals have lacked financial data requested by the union, such as detailed breakdowns of base and incentive pay for firefighters and police officers as well as criteria for specific incentives.
Turner said the “city would be bankrupt” if it met all the demands of the firefighters union. He also said the ongoing dispute over Prop B has “weighed heavily” on the city and its people.
Barring a breakthrough in negotiations, Garrison will at some point end the dispute by allowing the voter-approved referendum to stand or deeming it unconstitutional. Attorneys for the police officers’ union and city have argued that Prop B is preempted by the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act, which is part of Texas’ Local Government Code.
Garrison, during an April 18 hearing, said there is legal precedent that both supports and goes against the legality of Prop B. On Friday, she ordered the three litigants to submit briefs on or before May 10 that answer the following question: “When local law authorizes conduct that can be consistent with state law in some circumstances, but can be inconsistent with state law in other circumstances; then does the local law run afoul to the state law for all purposes?”
Turner made his stance clear.
“I am firmly convinced that Proposition B is not in the best interests of this city,” he said. “And it should not be allowed to live.”