Why I am backing Sylvester Turner

Since Texpatriate went dormant, I’ve realized a few things. One of them is that I no longer have to keep my cards close to the vest, so to speak, with respect to municipal elections until October. With that in mind, I want to explain some of my picks to lead Houston sooner rather than later (in this case, much sooner). By far the easiest pick, and one I basically determined a year ago, is State Representative Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, for mayor. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, he is the right person for the job. Briefly, I would like to explain why.

A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with the frontrunners for mayor in lengthy interviews regarding city issues. What I noticed is that Turner and former Congressman Chris Bell, D-Houston, his main competitor, have totally different visions as mayor, despite not really diverging from one another too much in their political positions. Bell is obsessed with policy, whereas Turner is obsessed with the process. One might not think that a benefit for Turner, but his track record in the state legislature speaks for itself.

Turner has a wealth of experience that none of his opponents can even approach. With more than 25 years in the legislature, he has repeatedly proven himself to be a master of the rules and procedures that govern the State House. As the Vice-Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he wields a disproportionate amount of power for a member of the minority party, but he puts it to good use. Last session, he was particularly instrumental in killing a bad water bill and bringing about a much better, bipartisan alternative.

If elected, Turner would bring all that knowledge and experience to the 3rd floor of city hall, where he would no doubt be able to form an inclusive and more effective coalition to lead the city.

Perhaps most important, Turner would be the perfect successor for Mayor Annise Parker, who I think has been an overall positive mayor but has certainly had some hiccups along the way. The other candidates tend to characterize her as either infallible or the cause of everything wrong in the city, both of which are pretty silly overgeneralizing assertions.

Specifically, Turner would not only double down on Parker’s positive steps in the right direction on things such as LGBT rights, he would address the issues Parker did not, such as our crumbling roads or the impasse on the firefighters’ pensions. On the latter front, Turner has already been instrumental in brokering a good first step in that long process.

Accordingly, Turner is already being supported by not only some of Parker’s historical base, including parts of the LGBT community and inner-loop business Democrats, but by historical enemies as well. The Firefighter’s Union, obviously no friend of Parker’s, has already endorsed him, as have both the Police Officer’s Union and HOPE, the municipal employee’s union. Expect a plethora of other organizations to soon follow.

Furthermore, I’m not especially impressed with Turner’s competition. Given the growing polarization of politics and the toxicity of some state Republican principles, I do think it is important to have a Democrat as mayor. I also think that Turner, a native Houstonian, has a better connection to this city than some who, for example, was previously the mayor of another town. Turner is also brilliant; aside from his legislative accomplishments, he’s a gifted attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School.

Now, I wasn’t alive (even by Dan Patrick’s definition) in 1991, so I don’t have a personal recollection of the shenanigans that surrounded that election. Sadly, much of the electorate does. Channel 13 libeled Turner in such a slimy way back then, and it would cause me to lose all my respect for any of the other mayoral candidates if they brought up those discredited lies at some point throughout the campaign.

One of the biggest things I have learned about politics in the last year is that, in the absence of other skills and capabilities, being a policy wonk will not get you very far. That and a dollar will get you a coke. A successful mayor needs to also be an expert at the procedures and processes of government. The big stuff will follow, as I’m sure it will with Turner.

Accordingly, I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly endorse Sylvester Turner for mayor!

David Feldman resigns

The Houston Chronicle reports that David Feldman, the City Attorney of Houston, has resigned. Feldman took office in May 2010, a few months into Mayor Annise Parker’s first term, and has worked under her for the succeeding nearly five years. Now, with just a little more than a year left on Parker’s final term in office, Feldman is out the door.

Ostensibly, it is because he wishes to go into private practice with his son, who is also an attorney. But Feldman, a former partner at the blue-chip firm Vinson & Elkins, would have surely had that opportunity — as well as a plethora of others — waiting for him at the end of Parker’s time in office. Some individuals, namely former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, contend that Feldman is leaving because of the firestorm that erupted regarding the recent asinine decision by Feldman’s office to subpoena pertinent sermons from pastors, namely those involving the non-discrimination ordinance and its succeeding referendum effort. Feldman, for his part, claims he did not personally authorize the subpoenas but conceded that the issuing of them was a blunder on his part.

Interestingly enough, Feldman’s resignation — which will take effect on January 16th of next year — occurs just before a planned trial on the validity of petition efforts to overturn the aforementioned NDO. Feldman himself intimated to the Chronicle that he wished to resign before the trial, so that he could testify and not disqualify the Legal Department staff from serving as counsel. However, the cottage legal expert that the Chronicle sought out even noted that such drastic concerns were patently silly. My legal sources have said the same thing.

The Chronicle article is yeoman’s work by Mike Morris, and it essentially pens Feldman’s political obituary; I highly recommend reading the whole thing. One point of note is that, even among ideological opponents on the NDO, such as Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Feldman was well-liked as an honest hard worker. Although his legacy will likely be cemented in that controversial ordinance, he does have a history of working hard to achieve many of the other city goals.

I think I am most curious, however, about the exact decision for Feldman to leave office. As the Houston Press notes (as well as the Chronicle article), the city is also approaching a big battle with the Firefighter’s Union regarding contracts. The interim president of that union, as the Chronicle quotes, did not have any kind words for Feldman on the news of his departure.

I’m in Galveston this morning, but I can still hear quacking all the day from City Hall. As Parker enters the final few months of her term, more and more senior staff will begin jumping ship. Not necessarily a judgment on her administration in particular, just a common component of the six-year itch in municipal politics. One must wonder, though, if the negative press over the NDO played a greater part specifically in Feldman calling it quits.

Fire Union President resigns

The Houston Chronicle reports that Bryan Sky-Eagle, the President of the Houston Firefighter’s Union, has prematurely resigned his position. Sky-Eagle was elected to the post in October 2013 to what was ostensibly a three year term. However, not even one year into the position, he has called it quits, citing the irreconcilable difficulties he had with his membership. To put it bluntly, he was seen as too cozy with Mayor Annise Parker by the rank-and-file members of the union, whom he was quite unpopular therewith.

The Firefighter’s Union has recently been in the news due to a long standing argument between its members and the City of Houston on the topic of pensions. Firefighter’s pensions are considerably more sizable than those for other municipal public servants (Bureaucrats and Police Officers, respectively), and while they have been reduced and modified for others at City Hall in recent years, the same has not happened for the firefighter’s. This is mainly due to an arcane State Law that allows the Legislature to directly oversee the firefighter’s pensions.

Over the summer, there was a tentative agreement reached between Sky-Eagle and Parker on future firefighter contracts, specifically curtailing overtime benefits. Sky-Eagle unilaterally reached this agreement, and when it was supposed to be confirmed by union membership (typically a mere formality), a whopping 93% of members voted it down. Furthermore, there have been other examples of Sky-Eagle going at it alone and without the proper authorization of his membership. The Chronicle article even notes a few examples where he was sternly rebuked by the International Union association.

Specifically, on one occasion, Sky-Eagle made a point of not reimbursing union members for their attendance at a conference. The International Association of Firefighters specifically ordered him to reverse the action. This, among other actions, led to a lawsuit between the local and international entities. The only problem with this is that Sky-Eagle went gunboat on the lawsuit, without seeking the requisite approval from the union membership.

Sky-Eagle, for his part, said that he has been receiving anonymous threats of violence, and decided that it all just wasn’t worth it anymore. I am angered to hear that someone personally went after him, as it cheapens the validity of actual criticisms against him.

As for the underlying issue, I’ve opined broadly on both sides of this issue before, and haven’t necessarily made up my mind about the philosophy of it all. I didn’t actually think the compromise reached between Parker and Sky-Eagle was that bad, but I suppose this was more a comment on how he went about it all.

HFD brownouts anyways

The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that the first long-dreaded brownouts of the Houston Fire Department’s service have begun. As the astute may recall, an agreement was ostensibly reached some three weeks ago that averted such an issue, which was first caused by too many unannounced absences among the firefighters. As I have explained ad nauseum in the past, this is largely thanks to an overgenerous union contract that allows most firefighters to receive paid leave without much of an eye or upper bound as to how many people are taking off. Accordingly, especially during major holidays, the department was swamped by ballooning payroll expenses, thus putting them over budget.

The original solution to this issue was simply pulling fire trucks out of commission until the end of the fiscal year, which is the halfway point of the year. However, after much posturing, Mayor Parker and the Firefighter’s Union came to an agreement wherein the firefighters would receive a meager pay hike in exchange for constricting many of the conventions used to take off time on paid leave. The other major provision was that, provided there were no more than 36 unannounced absences in a particular day, brownouts would not occur. However, on Friday, 42 unannounced absences occurred.

Click here to read more!

Belated council update

The biggest news out of City Hall yesterday was that the contentious fire union contract was unanimously approved by the Council in order to prevent brownouts from occurring. As I noted about a week and a half ago, the Mayor and the Firefighter’s Union reached a comprehensive agreement to avert looming brownouts caused by the HFD going over budget for the fiscal year as a result of massive overtime pay paid through a generous union contract. As Off the Kuff notes, the Firefighter’s Union has already overwhelmingly ratified this agreement, meaning it is now slated to go into effect.

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle has the full story on this issue, including the fact that the Firefighter’s Union approved the compromise by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. The article also has a comprehensive summation of the other major actions taken by the City Council throughout the course of the day. First and foremost, a major proposal to combat blighted buildings was tagged for another two weeks. Second, the long-awaited joint-processing-center finally received appropriations from City Hall. Third, a new development has occurred in the Uber/Lyft issue, specifically pertaining to safety records.

Click here to read about all these developments!

Brownout agreement reached

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Parker and the Houston Fire Department have reached a tentative agreement that would avert upcoming brownouts in fire service. The brownouts were thought to take effect after a City Council committee voted to not allocate any more money to HFD’s budget after they overspent following massive overtime pay (largely thanks to a generous union contract). The standoff was part of a broader disagreement of principles between Mayor Annise Parker and the Firefighter’s Union. Because of a sweetheart law, the union is mostly regulated from Austin, where they receive much nicer terms than the Police or Municipal Employees. Parker has been actively campaigning to nix this State control, thus allowing her to curtail some of the frills of their pension plan.

Recently, neither appeared to willing to budge on their position relating to this overtime/budget crisis. Parker was unwilling to spend more money on the department, while the union was unwilling to accept any sort of cut to their wages or benefits. Accordingly, it looked that the big loser would be the people of Houston, to whom would bear the brunt of diminished public safety.

Click here to read more about an agreement reached!

HFD union sues City

UPDATE: Further hearing on the matter is set for March 7th.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Houston Fire Department’s union (Local 341) has sued the City over the recent brownouts in coverage going around the City. Last Thursday, a Council Committee voted to compel the Fire Department into managing a large budget deficit (predominantly caused by excessive overtime pay through a generous union contract) through their own means. Accordingly, after Mayor Parker gave the nod to this course of action, the Fire Department announced they would begin rolling blackouts of service throughout the city, grounding ambulances for example, such as what happened this weekend.

Today at noon, the Firefighter’s Union sought a temporary restraining order from Judge Elaine Palmer (215th Civil District Court), which was then summarily denied. City Attorney David Feldman, Houston’s key counsel on legal issues, laughed off the suit as frivolous, proclaiming “This is not what the courthouse is for.”

Rather than Chief Terry Garrison, who must retain some semblance of a working relationship with Mayor Parker, this push has largely been driven by Bryan Sky-Eagle, the Firefighter’s Union President. In comments first reported by KPRC, Sky-Eagle noted he believed this would be an ongoing effort, albeit he made his comments before Judge Palmer denied his request for a temporary restraining order.

Click here to read more, including a statement by Mayor Parker!

Everybody’s a critic

A few days ago, I wrote about the upcoming brownouts at the Fire Department. At that time, the Council Budget Committee voted on a non-binding resolution to idle certain trucks and force the HFD to solve a ballooning deficit solely from their own coffers. This deficit was largely created by a flood of overtime pay in just a couple of big holiday weekends. Critics charge a favorable union contract for the deficit.

Now, Mayor Parker has announced that she will go forward with implementing the Committee’s resolution. The brownouts will begin soon and follow through to the end of the fiscal year (the end of June). As Off the Kuff notes, one of the bigger critics of this strategy is Councilmember C.O. Bradford, who has long been both sympathetic to the firefighters and unfriendly towards the Mayor’s platform and agenda. However, the Parker/Bradford dichotomy is a drastic oversimplification of the real politics of the issue. Also disagreeing with Mayor Parker on the issue has been Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez, a typical ally of the administration.

Click here to read more on this issue, including some surprising comments from a State Senator!

Fire Department brownouts

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that ballooning overtime pay had occurred at the Houston Fire Department. This excessive overtime arrangement, wherein (because of an overly generous union contract) there was no cap on many firefighters could take off on a given day, saw a great deal of expenditures allocated to overtime on a small number of weekends. This, along with other factors, caused the Fire Department’s budget to be way over the mark. Accordingly, the Houston City Council’s Budget Committee met today to discuss ways to cut costs in HFD for the remainder of the City’s fiscal year (roughly four months). Since most of the department’s expenses are personnel costs protected by the union contract, the Committee had to come up with somewhat drastic solutions to this problem.

First, the committee discussed the idea of paying the department’s deficit –estimated at around $10.5 Million– out of pocket, given that the municipality has seen extra tax money in its coffers. But the Chairman of the committee, Councilmember Stephen Costello, was quite tepid on the subject, saying “I’m not real sure that there are enough votes on council to just arbitrarily give them $8 million.” Mayor Annise Parker, meanwhile, was far tougher. “They managed their way into the problem; they can manage their way out,” she said.

Click here to read about what the Committee did!

In re HFD overtime

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle presents a longform article on the Houston Fire Department budget, specifically how the budget is being strained at this moment by allegedly excessive overtime payments. The story reeks of at least a mild slant –some may even go as far as calling it a ‘hit piece’– but nonetheless serves an important purpose in exemplifying both the tense relationship between HFD & the City, and the finances of the fire department.

As I understand the current controversy, the issue predominantly revolves around about $8Million in overtime pay charged to the department. Given the fact that, as the Chronicle article notes, 92% of the department budget is salaries, this overtime pay was hard to offset. Terry Garrison, the Fire Chief, has previously stated that the department would attempt to fix the issues caused by the unexpected expenditures by cutting some administrative posts and severely curtailing certain training programs (specifically those for prospective paramedics).

The unexpected overtime costs were directly connected to an uber-powerful union contract the firefighters have against the City, which prohibits common sense regulations such as limiting the number of firefighters who take off on any one day. Most all of the overtime pay occurred as a direct result of just a few weekends when a plethora of firefighters would take time off. Another fact, by the Chronicle’s own admission, is that the department is both understaffed and underpaid for a City of Houston’s size.

Click here to read the full article!