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Friday, October 21, 2005

If you don't want to look shifty, don't dress like Snidely Whiplash!

Dear friends of ETJTA,

We finally received a copy of Mr. Sweeney's Powerpoint presentation to the TxDOT "Sharing Approaches" workshop on Wednesday - at 8:56 AM the day of the presentation. The workshop started at 9:30 AM. We were all driving to work or getting our day started. We had 36 minutes to react and respond and no time for them to fix it.

And they pleaded "lack of time" as expected...

There was an entire page in the Powerpoint on developing an RFP for a consultant and describing a "work methodology" (read "scope of work") for the consultant. This was something that we specified on Monday that should NOT be in the presentation, but be left for the steering committee to decide how and whether or not to do.

Fortunately, an angelic being must have intervened for the digital projector at the workshop malfunctioned and prevented the Powerpoint from being used. As a result, Mark scarcely mentioned the offending slide.

A couple of days later, the rumor mill in Tyler is reporting that ETCOG has approached the City of Tyler and Smith County Commissioners to create a resolution declaring ETCOG the lead agency for regional service planning in East Texas, in direct opposition to the carefully developed and implemented stakeholder process that appointed a three member lead agency management structure consisting of TxDOT, GETTA and ETCOG.

Someone has also been spreading around among good folks over in the Marshall area, the accusation that the "Tyler gang" (ETJTA, GETTA, TxDOT Tyler District) somehow deliberately left out folks from the 6 Eastern counties and the two other TxDOT districts for their own nefarious purposes.

Trouble is, it was Just Transportation Alliances and TxDOT and GETTA folks that did, in fact, invite folks from the Marshall, Jefferson area to both TxDOT stakeholder meetings. We wrote letters, made phone calls and sent e-mails to those we knew of in the eastern counties of the region. We did this while we were pushing hard for our own consumers in our neighborhood to be included in transit planning. We have since offered the Marshall area folks all the help that JTA and the rest of us can give them to organize a consumer-based initiative in their area.

It has always been our intent to include everyone we could find. Three years ago, we started collecting stakeholder data in all 14 counties, believing that broad participation makes for a stronger, smarter process. What weakens the process is deliberately setting about to pit stakeholders from one region against stakeholders from another region in what looks like an attempt to neutralize the consumer voices that have successfully infiltrated the regional service planning process and to seize control of the planning process. By manipulating a series of political "resolutions" out of trusting city and county officials you may get yourself appointed the Great And Powerful Oz and Ruler of All Things Transit, but in the process you will make yourself some powerful foes and really hack off the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT PTN and an assortment of powerful state, national and local advocacy groups.

In the interest of clarity, I want the Marshall folks to know that I am not criticising them for feeling left out. They were left out! What I want to make clear is that they may be blaming the wrong folks. Who, after all, claims to be the leader here? Who's been calling "planning" meetings since December 2004 without calling for actual participation by consumers in the process? Who objected to the planning meeting on August 12 because it was "premature"? Who should have been making the effort to bring together the far East Texas Counties from day 1? Who's been making the case that they have the resources to do it and the rest of us do not?

For five years I've been running all over East Texas talking to local transportation initiatives from Jefferson to Jacksonville to Mineola - listening to literally hundreds of people talk about their transportation problems. I've filled up my own gas tank, worn out my own tires, scrounged money from JTA's grants for plane fare and hotels, bought meals on the road, spent unpaid hours away from work that I had to make up and spent countless late night hours (check some of the posting time stamps on my past e-mails and blog posts), creating websites, writing e-mails, making phone calls and visiting politicians. ETCOG has me outnumbered. I admit it. They can do more than me.

So why then are we just now finding out that the "six counties" have been left out and suddenly realizing that we need to hold meetings in Marshall to choose the steering committee? Why all of a sudden have the folks in Marshall suddenly become upset, saying angrily that "Tyler" isn't the whole region? How did that come about? Who could have suggested the idea that somehow consumer groups in Tyler were to blame in the first place? Even more ludicrous is the suggestion that the Tyler District was leaving out Paris and Atlanta districts when it's common practice for the district with the most territory in a COG to take the lead on behalf of the other districts. Besides, who led the way in inviting consumers to the planning process in East Texas beginning more than 4 years ago? Four years ago, TxDOT Tyler District was the one that pulled out a chair for consumers at the table in the first place. Does anyone else think things are getting a little aromatic with all this sudden concern for those who haven't got local initiatives going and don't really know what's going on and so are still a little too trusting?

It would be well to remember that even though Richard Nixon said, "I'm not a crook," and Bill Clinton said, "I didn't have sex with that woman," it sure did look like it to most of us and both gentlemen suffered a lot of misery and humiliation for it even though they were the most powerful political figures in the country at the time.

It would also be well to remember that when citizens believe they have been disenfranchised, it is to the law that they turn for help.

Finally, it would be well to remember that even though your heart may be pure and your motives above reproach, if you dress up like Snidely Whiplash and twirl your long black moustache a lot, nobody's going to line up to buy a used car from you...

Just one man's opinion.

Tom King

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

They're at it again....

We had a meeting at East Texas Council of Governments on Monday. Things were discussed, decisions made, promises extended.

The most important promise was by ETCOG planner and the meeting's facilitator, Mark Sweeney. Mark promised we'd get a look at the Powerpoint he was going to present at Wednesday's regional service planning workshop in Austin. He promised to e-mail a draft for us to look over. It's Tuesday and it's after midnight. No draft!

No such file was e-mailed to me or anyone I know of. It will be presented unreviewed by members of the lead agency team other than possibly a few members of the COG staff that helped draft it. This presentation tells the DOT what we're doing about regional service planning in East Texas. It must represent what's actually happening and who's really doing what. It might and it might not. Without that draft, we do not know and sadly, we don't particularly trust the authors of the draft based on the last 5 years of experience with them.

After the meeting on Monday, a member of the COG staff asked me how they'd done. I want to change my answer. This one thing would have at least made it look like they really meant to do what we asked them to do. Instead, by not releasing the draft file BEFORE going to Austin, the COG only further demonstrated an inability to understand how important it is to show us the draft in advance of presenting it and in time to discuss any problems we might have with the structure of it.

So, here we go once again. I'm positive they'll downplay this as a technical difficulty and nothing intentional. Meanwhile, we don't have any idea what Mark is really presenting down there till it's too late. Meanwhile, consumers who have been shut out time and again by just this sort of bait and switch tactic, grow ever more tired of being marginalized by an ETCOG staff that are really failing in their struggle to make the paradigm shift from provider-based to consumer-based planning (or even a blending of the two). It doesn't matter if it was an honest mistake, it looks like what it looks like and it don't look good and if you want people to trust you, you've got to look trustworthy.

One man's opinion (leave yours below if you want).

Tom King

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Old Brummi and the She-Coon

As some of you may know, I rotated off the Public Transportation Advisory Committee this month. This caused a stir amongst those for whom I was a major thorn in their side on that committee. Suddenly, the members of the loyal opposition have come out of the woodwork to provide me with Job's comfort - gloating over my perceived demise and listing reasons why I was not reappointed.

These reasons included factors like my titanic ego, my unrepentant arrogance and my colossal ignorance. I fully expected to get an e-mail that starts, "Tom, you ignorant slut..." like the old Dan Ackroyd/Jane Curtain Point/Counterpoint bit on Saturday Night Live. Interestingly enough, E-mails from my critics included a particularly scathing "nanny, nanny boo-boo" letter from ETCOG's executive director* (which I understand got a lot of really big laughs down in Austin when I showed it to them).

To those of you who have supported the efforts of East Texas Just Transportation Alliance to bring some real consumer participation into regional transportation planning, I want you to know that everything is moving along as planned. I was replaced on PTAC by not one, but two new members; good people - one an advocate and the other a business person with strong ties to Commissioner Andrade who has been carrying the banner for regional service planning from the very beginning. I leave the PTAC in good hands.

As for me, personally, I have a huge capital campaign to run for Generations Together (taking cash donations, credit cards, pledges and unused bus tokens anytime - just call me) and I'm looking forward to some more really interesting fun with regional service planning in the near future (I can't talk about it just yet, but will let you all know as soon as I can). In contrast to the gloating of my opponents over my leaving the PTAC in disgrace as they suppose, I've also had a stack of thank you letters and expressions of appreciation from a wide range of people in TxDOT and the advocacy community. It's nice to hear from people who really do care about people who need a ride to work or the doctor or the grocery store. It's encouraging to know your work was appreciated and to be reassured that you weren't taken out by the forces of darkness, but that everything is part of the plan.

The whole thing reminds me of a Jerry Clower story about Uncle Versi's coon hound Old Brummi. Old Brummi had been after the She-coon of all time for years. Finally, one dark night Old Brummi treed her. Well she tried to jump clear on over to the next tree and escape, but she missed and landed right on top of Old Brummi. They commenced to fightin'.and scratchin' and bitiin' and clawin' up one side of the hill an down t'other.

Finally, they rolled down a little railroad cut and out onto the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Old Brummi and the She-coon was so intent on killin' one another that they weren't aware of where they were conductin' their fight and that great American train, The City of New Orleans run right over the top of them.

Uncle Versi ran over to the battered body of Old Brummi and dropped down on his knees and commenced to squallin'.

Clovis Ledbetter, his great good friend, caught up with him and knelt down beside him there on the tracks and tried his best to comfort Uncle Versi.

"It's a hard thing to lose a good coon hound," he commiserated with the old man.

"That ain't it," Uncle Versi shook his head sorrowfully. "Old Brummi had a good long life and did a lot of huntin' in his time and he had a quick death. He didn't suffer none neither. That's a mercy."

"Then why are you so upset?" Clovis asked puzzled.

"Well," sobbed Uncle Versi, "It's just that Old Brummi died thinkin' it was that coon what killed him!"


For me, it's just nice to know it weren't the She Coon what killed me.

Thanks to all who wrote such nice things.

Old Tommy

*A full copy of the text of Glynn Knight's letter is posted in the "comments" section to this post.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bad Dogs & Bicycles - Why I Care About Rural Transit

It has been suggested that my passion for rural transportation issues (particularly my opposition to ETCOG’s handling of regional service planning) has something to do with me hoping to get some money out of this deal. In answer to that charge, let me tell a story.

In 1981 I had ended my career as a parochial school teacher and temporarily taken up my father’s work as a construction hand at Brown & Root. New to the trick of working in the heavy construction industry, we miscalculated our finances the first time I moved from one job to another, and we found ourselves broke and homeless. Our old car broke down and had to be hauled away. We found a cheap farm hand’s house for rent in the middle of nowhere in Johnson County. I rode my bicycle to town 5 miles away to get groceries and rode back on narrow county roads balancing two large sacks of groceries on my handlebars dodging dogs and pickup trucks. My wife was pregnant and sick staying home in the heat of summer with no air conditioning and with two small boys. I’d been working for a week for Brown & Root at the Glen Rose nuclear power plant and it was an 85 mile round trip commute to work. We couldn’t even afford a phone.

My day went like this. At 4:30 AM I got on a bicycle and rode through the pitch dark on back roads and Farm to Market roads for 5 miles into Joshua – dodging several large vicious dogs who found it amusing to chase the fool in the hard hat and work boots rattling past their turf with the big clanky lunch box balanced on his handlebars. There were two Rottweiler's that got particularly pleasure by streaking across the yard in absolute silence and then leaping the fence with a roar in an attempt to startle me and knock me off the bike. I assume they viewed my early morning passage as an opportunity to snag a light early morning breakfast (I was much thinner then, what with all the healthy early morning cardio-vascular exercise I was getting). There were long stretches of road that were pitch black (you couldn't see the rattlesnakes that like to stretch out on the warm asphalt at night - those big squishy bumps you'd go over in the blackness were a particularly thrilling element of the old daily commute). It was a frightening, exhausting and humiliating trip. Passing farmers laughed and pointed. It took me an hour to pedal to town.

In Joshua I chained my bike to a light pole and boarded an old school bus some guy had. We paid him $20 a week to share a ride. We rode for another hour or so to get to Comanche Peak. At the end of long, exhausting day of hauling steel plates and huge metal struts from the storage yard to the containment building, I got back on the bus rode back to Joshua, got on the bike, set out cross country, dodged the dogs and pickup trucks and reached home to find my wife sitting in the front yard, holding the kids and crying because she’d been alone for 13 hours and was too sick to be able to fix the kids supper. She'd come outside to wait for me because she heard the dogs going nuts up the hill and knew I was almost home.

A few weeks later, she had the baby. I left the hospital at 3:00 AM, walked from South Fort Worth to Burleson, hitchhiked to Glen Rose (48 miles) and turned around and came back the same way to sit with her in the hospital. When she got home, I went back to riding the bicycle until someone stole it while I was at work. It took two hours to walk to Joshua and two hours to walk back home (the dogs were even more of an interesting challenge on foot). Finally I bought an aged Ford Maverick that lasted just long enough for us to get on our feet again. I went to work for a nonprofit organization the next year working in my field of expertise once again and have been working in the nonprofit/human service field ever since.

So, when I hear stories of little old ladies hitchhiking to Wal-Mart, colonia’s families handing over $80 worth of food stamp purchases to predatory van drivers for a trip to the grocery store and elderly couples being told they would have to build a circular drive in order to qualify to be picked up by rural transit I see a little red. When a small town council member tells me how desperately families in her town need rides to work and can’t get them and then a certain rural transit district manager tells me deviated fixed routes and commuter bus services are not practical/not doable and then I meet a provider in another region of East Texas who tells me they’ve been successfully doing deviated fixed routes for more than a year……

When a certain rural transit director stands up in a public meeting and says, “We don’t have to make our customers happy, they have to make us happy in order to get a ride!”.....

When we work for 5 years to get a JARC grant that a certain rural transit director told us would be useless and unusable and then, despite predictions, we actually get it and it’s usable after all and we realize we could have got a similar one for our rural counties with a little cooperation from that same rural transit district…

And when ETCOG spends 9 months working on a framework for regional service planning without inviting a single consumer side representative to the table effectively blowing a priceless opportunity to do regional service planning right, appoints itself lead agency without a general consensus, issues a premature self-serving RFP, and in the process endangers the brand new transit funding we all worked so hard to get for them by scoring zilch on their performance measures….

Well, I get just a teensy bit NUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You can see why I have an interest in transit issues now!

It’s not because of any money I hope to get.

It's not about contracts.

It’s about those damned dogs!

Tom King

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Sometimes it’s time to stomp & swear
Sometimes it’s time to cry
Sometimes you must a lion be
And sometimes just a fly……

Tom King

Monday, October 03, 2005

Lawyers, Sweet Potatoes and Fuzzy Wuzzy's

All is not always as it appears.
I was threatened with a lawyer today for something I said. The person doing the threatening had missed my point entirely and assumed I was being critical of her. She assumed things about me that were not true based probably on her own experience of how things work out there in the "real world".

She's one of those folks who have managed to figure out the intricacies of one or more of the "good old boy" networks that are pervasive in Texas politics and local government. Membership in these networks is seductive and can lead you to believe that this is "the way things really are". I've seen the same thing happen to people who work in Austin and Washington. They get inside the corridors of power and make assumptions about "how things really are" based on their knowledge of the inside workings of what is, in essence, a closed society.

These systems are like tightly knit families. As sociologists will tell you, tightly knit families have advantages and disadvantages to those within them. First, those families create a paradigm or 'worldview' that is very powerful. Everyone is under pressure to see things the way everyone else does within the system and the system pressures its members to avoid doing anything to upset the system in any way. In exchange, the members of the group are well cared for and loved and protected. But they also give up some freedom of thought and independence of action as well in exchange.

I've been operating outside the "system" a lot lately - rattling the cages, saying things nobody's supposed to say (at least not out loud). There was the children's story about the "Emperor's New Clothes" in which a little child was the only one not so imprisoned by the mores of the empire's closed little society that only he, in his youth and ignorance of propriety, could point out that the king, was in fact, naked. The story points up the problem of how often the "way things are" isn't really the way things are at all, only how things are here because we let them be that way for our own purposes. It also points up how easily we are defrauded by people who use the system for their own purposes as the emperor was in the story.

A missionary once went to the land of the Fuzzy Wuzzy's (it's probably not politically correct to call it that anymore, but this is his story). He went to church one Sabbath with the Fuzzy Wuzzy children and to his consternation, found that the children had all apparently brought snacks to church, for each carried a sweet potato in his hands. He felt he should teach these heathen children that they should not snack in church as though it were a movie theater, so he posted himself at the back of the room and prepared to pounce on any child that attempted to break open his potato for a quick bite during the hymn singing.

But the children sat stone still throughout the singing. Then the story telling started and the missionary sharpened his watch upon the tiny worshipers, but still the children held tightly to their potatoes and no one even licked his fingers during the story. Then, the deacons were called forward for the offering. The missionary shoved his hands into his pockets and withdrew some bills and change and prepared to demonstrate to the gathered children the proper way to lay your offering in the collection plate.

Only the deacons didn't bring offering plates forward. They brought five gallon metal buckets. Mystified the missionary watched the buckets begin their journey down the aisle.

Thunk, thunk, thunk went the buckets as the children tossed their sweet potato offering in. What a marvelous drumming noise they made and the children sang softly in counterpoint to the bucket music. When one of the buckets finally came to the missionary, he looked confused and finally tossed in his dollars and his change. His offering made a pathetic little plunk and flutter. Several nearby children tittered as they noted his embarrassment.

The missionary remembered what he had learned and whenever he attended a Fuzzy Wuzzy service thereafter, he always remembered to bring his own sweet potato.

We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear most of the time. It's easier that way. Seeing what is truth and hearing what is really being said are difficult things to do. Sometimes to be heard we have to bring sweet potatoes to the table if we want our listeners to understand. At other times, we just have to shout it out loud that the emperor is naked. The trick is figuring out which way works best in any given situation.

It's tough being a missionary.....or a little boy!

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King