Appellate Court Reverses Prop B Ruling That Blocked Pay Parity For Houston Firefighters

The decision comes as the fire union fights to have signatures verified in time for a crucial August deadline to have a new charter amendment placed on the November ballot — a process Mayor Sylvester Turner said this week could instead take months.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Houston firefighters respond to a fire at the Main Street Market at 901 Main Street in downtown Houston. Taken on October 17, 2019.

A trial court was wrong to block Proposition B, a charter amendment that would have provided pay parity between firefighters and police officers in Houston, a state appellate court ruled on Thursday.

In a 2-1 decision, the panel of 14th Court of Appeals judges found that the lower court was wrong in ruling that Proposition B was unconstitutional.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association called the ruling a “major blow” to the city’s ongoing fight against the measure.

“I’m not an attorney, but I do know this: Proposition B is the law,” union President Marty Lancton told Houston public Media. “It’s time for the city to stop. It’s time for the city to sit down and get this issue resolved once and for all. If you can’t listen to the 300,000 voters, listen to the appellate court and their ruling.”

The Houston Police Officers’ Union in 2018 succesfully sued to stop the implementation of Proposition B, arguing that it violated the Texas Constitution and a state law regulating the collective bargaining rights of municipal unions.

But the court of appeals rejected both claims on Thursday, finding that it was not unmistakably clear that the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act would preempt a “compensation floor" for firefighters. And because of that, the court also found that the amendment does not violate article XI, section 5 of the Texas Constitution, which bans amendments in conflict with state law.

The case was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ken Wise found that state law “unmistakably preempts” Prop B, and does more than establish a payment floor for firefighters. In fact, Wise wrote, the charter amendment does violate a measure in FPERA intended to set compensation comparable to the private sector.

“Because the pay-parity amendment ties fire fighters' compensation to a standard that is not based on prevailing private sector compensation, under the uncontroverted evidence in this case, the amendment is contrary to FPERA,” Wise wrote.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union agreed with Wise’s dissent, and said it was dissappointed in the majority decision. Both the union and City Attorney Arturo Michel confirmed Thursday that they were prepared to continue their appeal all the way to the Texas Supreme Court if needed.

“The City of Houston respectfully disagrees with today's Fourteenth Court of Appeals decision where, in a divided 2-1 vote, the majority reversed the trial court's determination that the firefighter pay parity charter amendment was unconstitutional,” read a statement from Michel. “The net effect of what the Firefighter's Union is seeking would be financially devastating to the City.”

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, speaks at a press conference held at the entrance to the City Hall Annex building, in downtown Houston.
Alvaro 'Al' Ortiz / Houston Public Media
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, speaks at a press conference held at the entrance to the City Hall Annex building in downtown Houston in August 2017.

The decision comes as Houston firefighters attempt to place yet another charter amendment on the ballot — one that would require binding arbitration between the city and the union. The union says it collected more than the 20,000 signatures needed.

In order for the amendment to be placed on the ballot, signatures must be verified by Aug. 16.

But the city has made no commitment to verifying the signatures in time for the August deadline, and at Tuesday’s City Council public session, Mayor Sylvester Turner said verification could take three months — a revelation Lancton called “alarming and disturbing.”

“This city has repeatedly shown that the voices of the voters come second,” Lancton said. “And I think that, given the context of all that is going on not only here statewide but nationally, this should cause alarm and concern for everybody. This is voter suppression at its most organic level.”

A spokesperson for the mayor did not immediately provide comment Thursday.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract since their previous deal expired in 2017.

In 2018, Houston voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition B despite opposition from Mayor Turner and the Houston Police Officers’ Union. The police union later sued, and a state district judge ruled in May 2019 that the proposition was "unconstitutional and void in its entirety."

Since then, the union has pushed unsuccesfully for mediation with the city, which has has fought in court to stop collective bargaining. In May, judges in a separate state appeals court case ruled that firefighters did have a right to negotiate under state law.

Last month, Houston City Council approved an 18% pay increase for firefighters without negotiations. The union has rejected the notion that the increase is a “raise,” instead calling it a “bonus” because it relies on temporary federal funds with no guarantee the money will be available in three years time.

Additional reporting by Florian Martin.