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Council hires law firm to advise city on Prop B legal questions

November 28, 2018

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

Council initially was set to consider a contract with Norton Rose worth up to $1.34 million, $250,000 of which already been had appropriated for a separate issue. The council separated that cost, delaying it for a future meeting, then on Turner’s suggestion cut the remaining contract from $1.09 million to a maximum of $500,000.

The firm operates more than 50 offices globally, including one in Houston. Neil Thomas, a Norton Rose partner in that office, served as treasurer for the anti-Prop B PAC, Protect Houston, and the firm contributed $15,000 to the committee’s coffers.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, who voted against the contract, urged Turner to work out a contract with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, who have asked the mayor to return to the negotiating table since the election. Turner has said he would not do so before first settling the preemption question.

The mayor initially planned to seek a contract with Norton Rose the morning after Election Day, but delayed the vote over concerns that hiring the firm would look like “a middle finger” to the voters, as District G Councilman Greg Travis put it.

“It is not about going against the will of the people,” Turner said after a handful of councilmembers raised concerns about the city not following the will of the voters. “It is about whether (Prop B) was valid in the first place.”

Some members, including Travis, said negotiating a contract with the fire union similarly would serve as a repudiation to voters.

Near the end of the debate, District E Councilman Dave Martin questioned why the fire union had sought to put Proposition B on the ballot, where it passed with 59 percent of the vote, if state law ultimately preempts the charter amendment.

“Why did we even have a pay parity petition?” Martin said. “What were people trying to gain? What was this about? Was it about leverage?”

In the end, Boykins, Travis and council members Brenda Stardig, Karla Cisneros, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh and Jack Christie opposed the law firm contract.

The most vigorous opposition came from Kubosh, who argued the city could settle the legal question with its in-house attorneys. Turner said the legal department is “stretched thin,” and contended the legal sum would amount to a small fraction of the cost of implementing Proposition B, which has an estimated annual cost of $100 million.

jasper.scherer@chron.com

twitter.com/jaspscherer

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