Houston firefighters descend on Heights to prepare for massive petition drive
The city-wide debate over Houston firefighters’ pay has come down to a battle between city hall and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the war room is just north of downtown at the union office on Freeman Street in the Heights.
The association represents around 4,000 firefighters and their families and starting in early July and continuing for at least two weeks thousands of Houston’s first responders and their supporters are flooding into the small, beige building to prepare for a massive block-walking and petitioning drive.
Their mission is to gather at least 21,000 signatures from registered voters in the city of Houston so that a measure can be placed on the November ballot that would allow the public to decide whether or not to add a charter amendment authorizing “parity in the compensation provided to Houston Firefighters compared to the compensation provided to Houston Police Officers,” reads the heading on the petition form next to a small, red firefighter’s helmet with the words, “Let The Voters Decide” inscribed around it.
“Since 2011, Houston firefighters have received only a three percent cost-of-living pay raise,” said Patrick “Marty” Lancton, president of the firefighters association. “HPD, who we love and respect, have gotten a 26 percent increase.”
The Union Local 341 is headquarters for training in petitioning procedure as well as some talking points for those knocking on doors.
Lancton, along with association Director Position No. 1 John Franco, are training HFD staff and civilian alike on petition gathering rules so that all signatures are deemed valid by City of Houston City Secretary.
Two HFD firefighters, Jason Danvir and Kirk Ponce de Leon, have already knocked on doors or been allowed by some businesses to inform customers on their property about the petition.
“The majority of people who signed our petition had already heard a lot about it,” said Danvir, an 18-year veteran with the department who was allowed by Karbach Brewery to solicit there on Sunday, his day off. “But a lot of people were surprised we didn’t make the same as police officers.”
He estimates he secured about 30 signatures at Karbach.
Ponce de Leon has just under two years as a firefighter, but got a thorough education in compensation woes early on.
“Ever since I’ve come into this, it’s all I’ve heard,” he said.
The rookie firefighter has said he signed up anywhere from 50 to 60 people in the hour he spent at a small grocery market on Washington Avenue.
Danvir describes people as “overwhelmingly positive” when he tells them about the effort and asks for their signature. Buffalo Wild Wings on Washington Avenue has also allowed HFD to set up petition stations inside their doors.
All of the petitioning is done during off-time, said Lancton, which is usually an already packed schedule with side jobs and family obligations.
“This is very difficult for firefighters and their families,” he said. “The hole keeps widening and no one wants to address it.”
Franco, a firefighter of 13 years, trains those who petition to ask for verbal verification that the signer is a registered voter in the city of Houston - which will be checked agaisnst records by the City of Houston Secretary once turned in - and to make sure no one signs for a spouse or family member.
The firm who helped local activists gather signatures to get a measure to repeal alcohol restrictions in the Heights on the ballot last year, Texas Petition Strategies, is consulting with the association on this effort to guide them in the legal aspects of obtaining signatures.
Someone is at the office from 7 a.m. till 10 p.m., said Franco, to assist anyone who stops by to volunteer.
“It’s non-stop. Guys are coming through on a regular basis,” he said. “If firefighters come in, we’ll be ready.”