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Appeals court: Judge erred in blocking Houston from posting video of pay parity hearing

August 23, 2018

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

Carter issued the temporary restraining order earlier this month on the presumption that there was a “substantial likelihood” the July 26 budget committee hearing constituted illegal electioneering under state law, the justices wrote, but they said the record does not support that conclusion. They ordered Carter to rescind his order, which already had been temporarily blocked pending the ruling released Thursday.

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

Houston firefighters gathered tens of thousands of voter signatures and submitted the petition to put the parity question to voters a year ago, but had to sue the city to force it to count the petition. They won, and the petition was validated in May.

The firefighters sued again last month, arguing the committee hearing was a ploy to trash their idea. Amid early hearings in that case, the council voted to place the measure on the November ballot.

The item would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner estimates the move would cost $98 million annually and has said he will hold town halls in each of the 11 council districts to discuss the issue.