Whatever you’re doing, don’t read this editorial.
Stop. Reading. Right now.
Did we get your attention? Thought so. Anybody with a lick of sense knows that when you tell people not to look at something, they can’t help but look. All of which makes you wonder what the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association was thinking when it went to court to get a video of a public meeting pulled off the internet.
What doesn’t the firefighters’ union want you to see? If you’re reading online, click on the video and find out. A judge ordered the city to pull it down, but we’re posting it as a public service to Houston voters.
Here’s the background to this weird story. It’s all about a pay dispute between the firefighters and city government. Firefighters have repeatedly rejected what they’ve considered inadequate pay proposals from the city, including a 4 percent pay hike they voted down in 2014 and a 9.5 percent raise over three years that the city says it offered last January. As a result, firefighters have seen just a 3 percent raise since 2011. And, after years of refusing to agree to cuts to their lavish pension benefits, Mayor Sylvester Turner got the Legislature to cut pensions for firefighters, along with further cuts for police and municipal employees. Needless to say, firefighters are frustrated and upset.
So they found a backdoor to pay hikes. They revived an old concept calling for pay parity, suggesting that police officers and firefighters of roughly equivalent ranks should receive roughly the same salaries. Last year, the union collected enough signatures to call for a voter referendum. The city dragged its feet, so the union had to go to court to force a count signatures and put the issue before voters. The date is expected to be set at next week’s council meeting.
The mayor and some council members were alarmed at how much this proposal would cost, and they’re afraid voters who are generally sympathetic to firefighters will pass the referendum without giving it a second thought. Then, last week, the Houston City Council Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee held a meeting to discuss parity’s financial impact. City officials estimated it could cost $98 million a year. Fire Chief Sam Pena suggested it might force layoffs. But the meeting went so far beyond dry figures that the firefighters’ union sued the mayor and Councilman Dave Martin for illegal electioneering.
Now, it’s on the firefighter union officials for refusing to attend. Their attorney, Cris Feldman attended, and was allotted three minutes. Meanwhile, no council member came out in favor of parity. Officials with the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Police Officers’ Union spoke at length against it, with police at one point noting that firefighters, unlike police officers, get to sleep on the job. Later, the mayor tweeted out the video, leading Feldman to claim the proceeding had been concocted for the purposes of “creating a campaign ad.”
The deck was clearly stacked. But was it illegal? State District Judge Kyle Carter seemed to think so, saying that the opposition voiced by city officials went “beyond the pale.” He ordered the city to remove the meeting from its website, and also the mayor’s news conference afterward.
“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” said Anthony Hall, a former city attorney and councilman who has a rather sharp institutional memory.
We’ve posted the video on the Chronicle website, but we shouldn’t have to do that. Yes, firefighters deserve to have the parity proposal on the ballot. But voters have the right to watch their council members discuss the fiscal impact of a pay proposal they soon will be voting on. Firefighters should have shown up and given voters the other side.
So what is it firefighters don’t want you to see in that video? Pretty simple: It makes a compelling case that pay parity would cost taxpayers a fortune, and it could force the city government to cut services and lay off workers. But watch the video and decide for yourself. That’s the point of open government.