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Monday, September 19, 2005

Peter, Paul and George

I watched a Peter, Paul & Mary documentary last night. I loved their music when I was young and still do now. My wife looked at me skeptically. “We have nothing in common with those people now,” she pointed out. “They’re are all Democrats.” Actually, even though I’m a hard down conservative (which is not the same thing as a Republican by the way), I do have a lot in common with that odd collection of befuddled old liberals on the tube last night, fervently singing their anti-war and protest songs.

- We agree that war is bad for children and other living things and should be avoided.
- We agree that racism is fundamentally wrong.
- We agree that people should not be hungry.
- We agree that children should be treated with care and respect.
- We agree that we should treat everyone the way we want to be treated.
- We agree that life should be fun.
- We agree that the past is important and there are many things we can learn from it.
- We agree that the future is in our hands to shape.

What we disagree on is the method for accomplishing that goal. I am an advocate. Most of my colleagues in advocacy are liberal Democrats (with a capital “D”). I am a conservative (with a small “c”). I often vote Republican. I listen to Rush Limbaugh AND PBS. An accountant friend of mine once said I should spontaneously combust from the sheer contradiction of my beliefs.

The problem is he does not understand my beliefs. He is in exactly the same state as the radical right wing Republicans he openly despises. He believes he understands his opponents. He assigns motives to them believing they must, in fact, be evil people since they have not all joined the Democratic party, ergo they evidently disagree with his fundamental beliefs since if you agreed with those beliefs, you would surely be a Democrat.

In working over the past 4 years to help make sure that East Texas seniors, people with disabilities and low income families have access to the transportation resources they need to live, work and play alongside the rest of us, I discovered that some of my best allies were elected conservative legislators, senators and congressmen. I also discovered that my liberal buddies often had no clue as to how to talk to these folks. To be fair, they could not fathom why anyone had elected conservatives to public office in the first place, so it’s likely they aren’t terribly invested in understanding people they believe were elected either accidentally or under false pretenses and who will surely be thrown out when the American people wise up.

Sadly, believing they are so far apart from the new majority party, they have become every bit as intolerant in their own view of conservatives as they have long claimed Republicans are intolerant toward them. The anger they bear toward the very people they are asking for support has gotten in the way of their attempts to accomplish what they want to in the state legislature and congress.

Ultimately, both liberals and conservatives really do want social justice however differently they view the proper path toward that justice. A popular quote that has been used a lot lately illustrates how we agree on the ends, but not on the process. An African proverb, widely quoted of late says that it takes a village to raise a child. Liberals assume that the village is either national or global in scope. Put enough money in the hands of a large government entity and very smart people are expected to figure out how to make everything okay for everybody. To a conservative, that proverb means literally that the raising of children should be decided at the village level. It doesn’t say it takes a congress to raise a child or a UN summit. Instead conservatives like me believe that local people getting up out of their chairs and going to work on local problems is the best way to solve those problems.

That’s where I come down. I’ve discovered that it is extremely difficult to tease a workable solution for a local problem out of the federal government. It’s difficult to get the state to allow sufficient flexibility in its programs to create solutions that work at the local level. Sure they throw fat grants at problems, but by the time they get to Flint, they’re hedged about with so many restrictions and paperwork requirements that many of us just leave the money on the table as not being worth the trouble it takes to get it.

Public Transportation in Texas is a prime example. East Texas has been short changed for decades on the funding we get for transit, largely because we’ve done a lousy job of articulating what we need here. We’ve lacked the expertise, the lobbyists, the organization needed to get what we needed back from the government we entrusted with our tax dollars in the first place. So we’ve just kept on sending our taxes out and they kept on sending the money on to someone else. What comes back to us is so hedged in by rules and regulations that we wind up with rules that only allow transit companies to take people to doctors appointments and force them to make a separate trip to take the same person to the grocery store because the funding wouldn’t allow us to do both things on the same trip.

That kind of stupidity results from trying to solve local problems from Washington, DC. You have to create such a rigid structure in order to make federal programs “fair” to everyone across the nation that you wind up making it impossible to create anything but cookie cutter solutions when the programs reach the communities they’re supposed to serve.

Then, there are the hideous bureaucracies you create when you run programs out of Washington. We send the feds a dollar for food programs but it’s unlikely we get even half of that money back. The rest goes somewhere else or gets eaten up in salaries for the entrenched layers of bureaucracies in between Washington and Tyler, Texas. It’s an absurd way of doing social programs.

I believe we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift in government and nobody’s talking about it except conservative ideologues like Limbaugh and Hannity. Few people even understand that it’s happening. There is a movement underway to reduce the size of government that began in earnest when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. It confuses Republicans and Democrats alike, both of whom really do like big government when you get right down to it. What local communities don’t realize is that as federal and state taxes are successfully reduced, we are going to have to start taking over some important jobs like fighting local poverty and feeding the hungry and helping people find work at the local level. We can do it better here anyway!

My liberal friends don’t trust us to do it locally. It’s easier to fight the good fight in one place (Washington) than it is to fight it in hundreds of thousands of communities. Washington is a seductive place. All those statues and monuments and armies of young interns in black trench coats busily making connections and running government; all those huge granite buildings with all those heavy brass fixtures and wood paneling; all those statues – makes you think that somehow if you can just figure out how to work this town, you can do great things.

Those who have been seduced by the romance of working in Austin and Washington, would do well to remember that Martin Luther King started in the projects. Ghandi started in South African bodegas and Indian villages. The American Revolution wasn’t won in London!

I really believe that the successful activists of the future are going to be more and more conservative, more local in focus and each of them is going to increasingly have to become a lobbyist for his constituents and not for any specific party. Parties come and parties go, but as Jesus said, “The poor you have with you always.” Solutions for what we do about that should come from local government, faith-based communities and community based social service organizations that are based and funded as close to the village level as we can get them – shorter chains of bureaucracy that way.

The Democrats, unfortunately, haven’t figured that out yet. These arguably brilliant grass roots organizers ought to spend their time organizing local groups in solving local problems instead of busily busing them all to Washington DC. I tell you what - a mayor is a whole lot easier to intimidate than a president. When they figure that out, maybe the Democrats can once again become the party that it once was; a party that as Ronald Reagan pointed out, left most of us a long time ago to go off and play politics in Washington.

Tip O’Neill understood the point if not the application when he said, “All politics is local.”
Republicans are ahead of the game right now in figuring that out for the first time in history. I once did a fund-raiser in which I spoofed the upcoming presidential election by charging people to throw a pie at the candidate of their choice (or non-choice as suited the pie-thrower’s fancy). Volunteers wore Al Gore and George W. Bush masks and posed for cream pies. I asked representatives of both parties to volunteer. The Republicans got the joke! They brought a whole crew and ran the booth like carnival barkers. George W. Bush got 122 pie votes that afternoon.

When I approached the Democrats to help out in the booth, the county coordinator looked at me in horror and said, “You want to throw WHAT at the vice-president?” They refused to participate in such an undignified thing and as a result, Al Gore got creamed in our little pie poll. When a party loses its sense of good humor, it’s in BIG trouble. Don’t get me wrong, here; some of my closest friends are Democrats (big D). We’ve done a lot of good work together. But these guys need to lighten up a little. The caustic humor of Al Franken and Whoopi Goldberg is not serving them well. They’re getting creamed by guys like Rush Limbaugh and a growing number of new, more conservative humorists who have seized the public stage and are holding on to it by actually being funny rather than merely nasty.

When people accuse President Bush of being the most divisive president in history, they evidently haven’t come to my little village. As governor and then president, his policies and speeches actually united the folks in my neighborhood (except for one old crotchety guy from Massachusetts and none of us like him anyway and several of us have invited him to move if he really felt that way about the rest of us!). Just because liberals don’t like Bush and it makes them mad that he got elected TWICE, doesn’t make it true that he’s the most divisive in history. They said that about his two predecessors. Heck, I said that about Clinton! But, that’s kind of like when you were four years old, complaining that “Little Freddy made me mad!” because he got the last cookie. Hey, somebody had to get the last cookie! Get over it and figure out how to play nice.

...and I'm talking to myself too.

Just one man’s opinion….

Tom King

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Wait for Me I'm Your Leader - Part Dieux!

TYLER, TX: A message was sent to members of Greater East Texas Transportation Alliance (GETTA), a public transportation advisory group for TxDOT Tyler District. I am a member of that group and so received the letter.

East Texas Just Transportation Alliance’s draft response is highlighted in bold blue italic after each section of the letter. ETJTA members and anyone else who wants to should add any comments they have via the “comments” tab below. This will help us revise and extend our remarks for publication in other formats. In no way do these comments intend to suggest that anyone who wrote a letter of support or participated in the regional planning process as conducted by ETCOG is doing anything illegal, immoral or even fattening here. Signing a letter of support is something we all do. I've signed letters of support for competitors for a grant because I felt either would do a fine job of it. We merely feel that the process so far is flawed and needs to be done right or it will cost the whole region in dollars, efficiency and badly needed transportation resources for the future.

From Roxanne:

WE have been hearing some things from throughout the State that I would like to clarify.

The first is that ETCOG has designated themselves as the Lead Agency for the Coordinated Transit Plan. This is clearly not true. ETCOG has received Letters of Support, from various agencies, indicating that they support ETCOG as the Lead Agency. Some of the agencies are the City of Tyler MPO, Tyler Transit, City of Longview Transportation, City of Longview MPO, Texas United Mounted Peace Officers Association, TxDOT Atlanta District Engineer.

This is not clearly true either. It’s murky as a New Orleans Mardi Gras fountain! The two MPO’s and their partner transit agencies were both invited to the planning process by ETCOG in December 2004. The Mounted Peace Officers received the benefits of a recent transportation project in their county and it would have been impolite to say no. The Atlanta District Engineer doesn’t have a clue that anyone objects to it, so she signed a letter of support. Not surprising.

All these letters were REQUESTED by ETCOG and those who signed them were a small group with one token human services provider included for show. For something this big and this important, ETCOG should have lots more folks than that signed on and not just through a letter of support request. Letters of support are often a “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” process anyway and prove little or nothing, especially if the signers are at all beholden to ETCOG in some way or other.

Also, Roxanne doesn't mention GETTA as one of the supporting entities, although in the letter to TxDOT's Tyler District they claim that GETTA supports their leadership. I’m on GETTA and I don’t remember that vote at all! She also doesn't mention that some at Tyler and Longview Transit have suggested retracting their letters of support on the grounds that such letters were "premature".

The ETCOG Executive Committee has passed and signed a Resolution supporting ETCOG as the Lead Agency. The Executive Committee is comprised of local elected officials from the entire 14 counties, all of which are offices we are to invite to the Coordination Planning Effort.

Roxanne does not mention that ETCOG's board and all other "supporters" were garnered in discussions completely controlled by ETCOG staff and conducted behind closed doors, i.e. no real discussion or community consensus building occurred.

ETCOG has been giving it’s Executive Committee the mushroom treatment for many years. Many of its members and former members are concerned that the information they are often given by the COG and upon which they have to make decisions may be incomplete or inadequate or even slanted to support ETCOG's position. If the presentation on Regional Service Planning at the regional transportation summit last month is any indication of how they presented it to their executive committee, then the execs certainly didn’t have a clear picture. A person without prior knowledge of what Regional Service Planning is actually supposed to be and who understood the potential consequences for screwing it up, would have assumed from what they were told in the breakout session that the state had anointed ETCOG as the lead agency based.

This is NOT true as I pointed out at the summit. The decision on lead agency should by made by a consensus of the community which it clearly was not. This "consensus" building process went more like “Whew, we got that vote done and they didn’t even ask too many questions!” (insert High Five here)

Also note the future tense of the last sentence. They ARE going to invite the 14 counties to the table. Eight months into the process and they haven’t done it yet. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

I've discussed this with TxDOT staff in Austin. I asked them what other agency in East Texas has stepped up the plate to take on the roll of Lead Agency. She mentioned maybe the local MPO's. That would be Longview or Tyler MPO, they have already stated they were not interested in being the planning agency for the 14 county region. We received a letter of support from each of these MPO's.

Roxanne mentions that she talked to TxDOT’s PTN staff, but doesn't mention that the Tyler District held its own meeting on regional service planning because they do not think the public has been involved and find that an unacceptable response to their commission's charge, nor does she mention that PTN refused to intervene on ETCOG's behalf when they complained about the meeting being held at all!

Is anyone out there aware of an agency that wants to be the Lead Agency? If so, we have not heard from them.

There’s a reason for that. As long as the only people you’ve had at the table were people you invited, who depend on funding from you in some way, either directly or indirectly, nobody is going to buck you if you make yourself captain of the football team - especially if you claim to own the football!

I can name several agencies that could lead including the Workforce Development Board, The Regional Mobility Authority, any one of a dozen large nonprofit agencies, The Economic Development Councils (could form an advisory board to lead out)….

The COG has worked on regional service planning for 8 months and all they’ve come up with so far is:

  1. We’re the lead agency and we’ll decide who gets what money (that’s essentially what the RFP process is for).
  2. We’re going to hire a consultant and decide what we want him or her to do
  3. TxDOT should pay for the consultant

Meanwhile, other COG’s have released draft regional service planning documents that include the work of 20-50 agencies and individuals who reached a consensus as to who should lead, who should plan, whether they wanted to hire a consultant, what they want the consultant to do and built a framework on which inclusive regional service planning could take place. All I can see that ETCOG has done is stewed for 8 months over how to do regional service planning without running the risk that the communities served could do something the COG didn’t want them to do.

If you don’t tell people what you’re up to, invite them to the table, include them in the discussions, who do you expect is going to be clairvoyant enough to call you up one day and suggest a lead agency? ETCOG HAS proclaimed itself lead agency (which is what the ETCOG resolution did and don’t give me any BS about the COG board being diverse – it’s not the same as having substantive discussions ahead of time with people who disagree with you actually in the room).

The second thing is that ETCOG is putting the plan together and not involving Local Stakeholders. I believe that this is coming from the fact that ETCOG, the City of Longview and Tyler have gotten together and are issuing a Request for Proposal. Someone is misconstruing this as a step in the Regional Coordination Plan. It is not. It is an Administrative Function that will bring a third party on board, a Consultant, to facilitate the Coordinated Planning process. The Consultant will also perform some other Scopes of Work that are identified by the ETCOG, Longview and Tyler.

Okay, first, let’s get the terms right. It’s a regional “service” plan. This includes coordination, but is more than that. It includes decisions about leadership, relationships and inclusion of communities in the planning process. We are not supposed to be producing another of those “Coordination” Plans that wind up being all about moving buses around more efficiently. It has to include elements that address how the system reacts to things like economic development, disasters, population boom or bust and public demand. If you only want to move buses around, you only invite transit people to the table and you write a scope of work for the “consultant” that gets what you want and only what you want. It seems very important to the COG to design the scope of work BEFORE they consult any non-transit providers. If they do that they can keep the consultant from meddling where they don’t want him to meddle (even though the community itself might well want a little meddling there).

The Solicitation process we must follow requires that ETCOG be accountable for all steps of the process and that persons involved in the process are knowledgeable of the rules we must follow. It is not that this RFP process is secret, but it is sensitive. An example of the sensitive nature of the information would be the Medicaid Transportation RFP that TxDOT is currently working on. Over the last couple months, at meetings I have attended, questions came up about the Medicaid Transportation Program and changes that might be made. TxDOT informed everyone that they were in the middle of putting an RFP out on the street and they could not discuss the Medicaid Transportation Program at all. We as operators were not offended by this, we are aware of the sensitivity of the process and we know that TxDOT cannot comment on or discuss the RFP.

ETCOG-speak for “This stuff is just way too complicated for you rubes, so you should just stay out of it and let the pro’s handle things for you.” I find that patronizing and offensive. There are lots of folks out there with pretty solid skills in community planning and transportation issues that they haven’t seen fit to include in the process. They’ve certainly never invited me and I represent rural East Texas on the state Public Transportation Advisory Committee.

ETCOG wants to create an RFP process that we may ultimately decide we don’t even need (if anyone else is ever allowed to comment on that subject). Other COG’s have done a great deal of the work using resources within their own communities and done some damned fine work in the process. When communities participate in the process, they invest in the process. If they don’t, they keep their dollars in their pockets. So far, only Tyler and Longview and Mini-Bus were invited to be a part of the process. If I were Marshall, Kilgore, Henderson, Rusk, Jacksonville, Athens, Canton, Mineola or any one of the dozens of other towns and communities in the 14 county region, I’d have to wonder why this has gone so far along and no one has talked to me. ETCOG has a couple of highly trained community development people on their staff. Why haven’t they been beating the streets and roads talking to local communities, hosting little public forums and fact finding meetings out there, trying to find out what they need and, more importantly, what resources these communities could contribute to the regional service planning process?

Roxanne does not mention that anyone and everyone that wishes to can have as much public involvement as they want in scoping a project prior to actually posting an RFP, but that this process is specifically designed to secure ETCOG's lead "status." She doesn't even mention that the money they are likely to use is funding that is supposed to be used for services, not planning.

Once ETCOG puts the RFP out on the street, unless people attend the Pre Bidders Conference, we will not be able to answer any questions about the RFP to anyone. This is to ensure that potential bidders/proposers are not given information that is not shared with every potential bidder/proposer.

AT LAST – BEHOLD THE FINE PRINT! To translate - once they get an RFP done, they won’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions – the famed “That train’s already left the station” Principle. This only looks more and more secretive and underhanded the more they “explain” it to us simpletons.

One other thing the RFP would do is confirm ETCOG in the role of lead agency. Could that explain the rush to get the RFP done?

There are other COG's who are going to hire Consultants to help them through this Regional Coordination Planning Process.

Ah, yes, the old "But Mom, everybody else is doing it!" argument. Well, in most cases, the decision to hire a consultant was made by a team of dozens of local participants from a wide range of backgrounds (not just transit providers) and it was made out in the open with everyone participating. Questions were not given the bum’s rush. Agenda’s were not tightly controlled by a lead agency that had every reason to “control” the process. Most of those COG’s were not transit providers themselves and could, therefore, be neutral since they didn’t have assets to protect. ETCOG’s extraordinarily tight relationship with Mini-Bus, essentially makes the COG the provider.

If anyone has any questions or concerns please call me.

Call soon and call often…

Roxanne McKinley,

CCTM Rural Transportation Manager - ETCOG

903-984-8641, ext 217

CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION: The information contained in this transmittal and accompanying documents is protected by both state and federal law. This information is intended only for the use of the individual or entity named above. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution or action taken in reliance on the contents of this transmittal is strictly prohibited. If you have received this transmittal in error, please notify the sender immediately to arrange for return or destruction of these documents.

The authorized recipient of this information is prohibited from disclosing this information to any other party except as may be permitted by law, and is required to destroy the information after its intended purpose has been fulfilled, unless otherwise permitted by law.

I’ve already discussed this puppy (see “If You Tell Anybody, I'm Gonna Sock You!”)


1. There is not a requirement to have a consultant in place by October, in fact most areas are waiting until they figure out where the money will come from and how much is available, so why the hurry in East Texas?

2. Where exactly is the money coming from to pay for the RFP and is it budgeted already? What happens if this money is not available for the RFP, will ETCOG cover the expense with its own funds?

3. Would ETCOG be willing to follow the Capital Area model (in which one entity funds the contractor, ETCOG in this case-the Austin District in their case; but a technical steering committee of stakeholders manages the development of an RFP, selection of a contractor, and management of work)?

3. What exactly was communicated to the ETCOG board, to the others, when they voted (please provide in writing)?

4. If there were another entity that could serve as lead and the preponderance of community interests in an open meeting chose the other entity to serve as lead, would ETCOG support the decision?

Thanks for wading through all this. Please put in your two cents worth. Your contribution to our strategy on this issue could be more important than you know.

Tom King
Coordinator, East Texas Just Transportation Alliance

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hand wringing won't help much.....

In the past 48 hours we've been treated to a spectacle of hand-wringing and misery, politicized to the point of being ridiculous. I've been watching the response of the communities that have been accepting refugees. Churches, private citizens, human service agencies and disaster relief services have been mobilizing as rapidly as possible. Here, where we're untouched by the horrific damage wreaked by Katrina, we have only to announce on the radio to "Bring money here!" and a pile of money is created by caring citizens. A shelter needs supplies and within the hour, they're saying, "Slow down, we can't take it all."

So why are people dying in New Orleans? Unless you've been to the site of a huge natural disaster, there is no way to appreciate how hard it is to mobilize relief. First of all there's the problem of distance. You have to collect supplies, plan travel, gather up vehicles and personnel. This can take a lot of time to do. Inevitably in a widespread disaster which affects tens of thousands of square miles, travel, services and order breaks down pretty rapidly. Relief workers and local cops are understandably reluctant to move into areas where roving bands of shooters are popping away at anything that rolls of flies. So we wait for the military to move in.

The military takes time to gather up equipment, pull together transport, clear the roads and airways and get to where they are going. The logistical problem is incredible, but the last thing you want to do is send in troops without enough equipment, food, supplies and ammunition unless your purpose is to get them killed. Even then, the military's first priority has been to use its rapid deployment troops in rescue efforts first. Yes there are bodies piling up, but the rescue guys have to decide between burying the dead and saving those who are still alive and clinging to trees and rooftops. It's not an easy decision, but an obvious one. Meanwhile, the newsies are filming the piles of bodies and wondering where the military is. I can tell you. They're hanging out of the doors of military helicopters dragging people off of rooftops.

There are two kinds of reactions to all of this that I see out there. One group stands beside the highway, usually in front of a camera and screams, "When is somebody going to do something about all of this?"

The other response is to pick up tools and go to work trying to help people. In this kind of massive disaster, we find out what kind of communities we live in. I hope that if something like this happened here in East Texas, that instead of asking "Who's in charge?" we'd find our own leadership standing right among us. I would hope we'd look around to see how we could help someone else. If the bodies were piling up, I would hope some of us would take pity on them and do what we could to place them someplace safe where their loved ones could find them. I know people are doing that in New Orleans. People who have lost everything are dragging out their fishing boats and rescueing their neighbors from flooded neighborhoods. Some cops in New Orleans didn't turn in their badges and didn't barricade themselves in their police stations. Some churches have thrown open their doors and sheltered the homeless as best they could. Schools have sent their buses, Truck drivers have risked being mobbed to bring donated supplies to anxious survivors.

Is relief happening as fast as we like? No, of course not. Is somebody to blame? Probably, but not necessarily the ones who will get excoriated in the media in the next few weeks for doing the best they could. Ultimately, the same people that are screaming "What are you going to do for me?" should have been reinforcing the levees they knew would not hold. The mayor who knew the deficiencies of his city's infrastructure should have cleared his city faster when he realized how powerful Katrina was. Instead of encouraging anger and rioting with his hystrionic blaming of everyone in sight, he should be trying to calm the city, reassure survivors and doing what Mayor Rudy did in the wake of 9/11.

And don't forget, the reason relief hit New York faster after 9/11 was that the infrastructure was still intact. You could drive into town. The ferries and buses still worked. Not as big an area was impacted and you didn't have authorities shutting down highways into the area because there wasn't enough fuel for all the cars, trucks and buses headed that way.

It's bad guys, no doubt about it, but we need to be focusing on what we are doing. Maybe it will give others some idea how to help. The federal government can do a lot to help in the long run, but for right now, it's our neighbors and ourselves that need to be out there in our boats and organizing ourselves into self-help groups to bring order to our own neighborhoods as well as possible. Help is coming as fast as we can get it there. Just don't shoot us when we do roll into town, okay?

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King