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Appeals court blocks TRO that removed meeting video from city of Houston website

August 3, 2018

An appellate court on Friday stayed a state district judge’s temporary restraining order that forced the city of Houston to remove a video from its website of a council committee hearing at which city officials and others raised concerns about the cost of a proposal to grant firefighters “parity” in pay with police.

A panel of Texas 14th Court of Appeals judges agreed with the city’s request to temporarily block the restraining order issued by state District Judge Kyle Carter earlier this week, pending a hearing.

Carter issued the TRO Tuesday after agreeing with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association that a July 26 city council committee hearing amounted to illegal electioneering against the proposal, saying a number of comments made at the meeting were “beyond the pale.”

The city appealed the order, arguing that Carter’s decision did not meet minimum legal standards, was too broad, and was unconstitutional because it “chilled” the political speech of public officials. The panel of justices agreed to the stay, and asked the firefighters union to provide a response on the issue by Monday evening.

Cris Feldman, attorney for the firefighters union, shrugged off the stay, calling Friday’s machinations procedural, and noting that the order simply states, “It appears … that (the city’s) request for relief requires further consideration.”

When orders such as Carter’s are appealed, Feldman said, it is more common for justices to temporarily block them than to leave them in place while further hearings are scheduled.

“The action taken by the court of appeals today was fully anticipated and is simply giving the firefighters a chance to respond on Monday,” he added.

The city’s filings cast the matter in grander terms.

“No democratic deliberative body in the world, nor any elected politician, could function for long if, in their deliberations, elected officials were prevented from expressing their opinions or taking a side,” the city’s motion states. “Moreover, no democracy could long exist without an electorate informed by relevant facts.”

At the council meeting in question, city officials estimated the parity measure, if approved by voters, would give firefighters, on average, a 25 percent pay raise and cost $98 million a year, forcing layoffs. Business leaders and police union chiefs also were invited to speak, and they raised concerns or blasted the idea.

The fire union — which had sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chaired the committee hearing, over the issue on Monday — declined to attend the meeting, calling it a disingenuous sham set up to bash their proposal. They said Carter’s decision had held Turner to account for political gamesmanship.

Legal experts on Tuesday had expressed surprise at Carter’s TRO, and predicted it would be overturned.

The firefighters submitted their parity petition a year ago, but had to sue the city to force it to count the signatures they had gathered; the petition was validated in May.

Firefighters have received just a 3 percent raise since 2011, while taking deep cuts to their pension benefits. The union declared an impasse with the Turner administration and sued the city over its contract last year. That case is pending.

City council next Wednesday will discuss whether to place the parity item before voters this November or in November 2019.

mike.morris@chron.com

twitter.com/mmorris011

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