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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Arrogant and Ignorant

The picture at the left is my sister and my nephew in happier times. Driving in to work yesterday I was listening to a morning talk show. Host Roger Gray was interviewing the author of a book about psychiatry. The author launched into a diatribe about how psychiatry was a big fraud and there was no such thing as mental illness. The guy sounded like a Scientologist or something. It was the wrong day for that nonsense. I called the show and told the gentleman he was arrogant beyond belief and had no idea what he was talking about! The main was a trained real estate professional for crying out loud!

Roll back 8 hours - it's 2 am. The phone rings. A ringing phone at 2 am is never good news. It was my sister. She'd been crying. "Ben's dead," she sobbed. The sheriff had just left her house. My nephew's body was found face down in a ditch near White Settlement. He'd been missing for two weeks. He was identified by his fingerprints and a phone number in his backpack. We won't have a toxicology report for some time, but he was only briefly out of prison and had a history of substance abuse. He hadn't been able to find a job and apparently had a fight with the guy he was living with and grabbed his pack and left the house. That's the last anyone saw of him till they found him beside a road. We're not sure how long he'd been there, but we're having to cremate him. They wouldn't let my sister or mom see his body.

For years I've watched Ben struggle to find some sort of peace. My son suffers from bipolar disorder. He and Ben were very close and had very similar symptoms and often made the same mistakes in coping with them. It took years of working with psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists and therapists to figure out what was happening to my son. In the meantime he lived on an emotional roller coster that constantly threatened to bring him down. He got to where he couldn't work, couldn't sleep, couldn't cope. We finally discovered a combination of medications that helped level him out emotionally without reducing him to a zombie. We had some failures and false starts, but now he's apparently doing well on his current drug therapy. We went canoeing together a couple of weeks ago and had a great time.

Ben went through therapists, treatment centers and psychiatrists, then drug abuse and prison trying to cope with his own mental demons. He pushed us all away. He was deeply angry and didn't know why. He had a tender heart that was always getting broken. His disease killed him as surely as if someone had pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger. He left behind a young son who will have to cope with all this some day.

The two boys who grew up together. Ben lived with us for nearly two years while his mom got back into school and tried to sort her own life out. One boy found the right treatment for his very real illness. The other did not. One is alive. The other is not. To say that there is no such thing as mental illness is arrogant and ignorant beyond belief.

I've worked with people with mental illness for 20 years. When someone tries to tell me that mental illness doesn't exist, I have no patience with them. It is cruel to tell people struggling just to cope with the consequences of a brain that is wired up wrong that all they need to do is to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The real tragedy is when these people actually do manage to convince unsuspecting families to give up searching for an effective treatment and do some goofy herbal treatment or willpower regime or get themselves "cleared" of the evil spirits that inhabit them (the author on the radio sounded like a Scientologist and what they believe would be laughed at if you made it into a comic book plot).

It's a shame that the amendment granting Free Speech protects predators, cultists and the criminally ignorant too. Ben's birthday was this week. He'd have been 31. He could have been alive and happy today if some of his friends hadn't told him the same sorts of things this crank on the radio was selling. When somebody tells you that psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and doctors don't know what they're doing or are perpetrating a fraud, they're trying to sell you something. In Ben's case, it was illegal drugs.

Please, if you have a loved one suffering mental illness, find some help for them. There are many places that can help you. Keep the following things in mind as you try to find help:

1. Find a good doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. They can help guide you in the right direction.

2. If a treatment isn't working in the time that is should, TELL THE DOC!

3. Keep track of any symptoms or behaviors. Go with your loved one and TELL THE DOC WHAT YOU ARE SEEING! Scientists need information to make a diagnosis.

4. Be patient. Treatment is equal parts TREATMENT and TIME.

5. Love without conditions but be able to do the hard stuff too. Remember, they aren't trying to make you crazy. They're in pain and trying to cope!

6. Take care of yourself too. If you burn out, you won't be able to help your loved one anymore and that can be fatal.

7. Pray without ceasing. God who could give his own son, who could save a thief off a cross, will work everything out as it should.

I don't believe my nephew took his own life. The evidence at the scene doesn't indicate that. But even if he did, a merciful God is powerful enough to rescue a poor tormented soul even in the last moments of his life.

Please include my family in all of your prayers - my sister especially.

Tom

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What's Wrong with America - In Response to a "Survey"

GOT THIS IN MY E-MAIL

I'm taking a poll on what is wrong with America. If you would care to tell me what you find wrong with the country's moral dilemma, taxes, gun control, abortion, TV, the War in Iraq, or anything else. I promise I will keep names secret, but will send the results to you.

Susan


Here's what's wrong with America, Susan:

1. Freedom of Speech - You can't shut people up who disagree with you. How can you keep people from thinking things you don't want them to think unless you can keep other people from saying things that give them ideas? Adolph Hitler kicked his country's economy into high gear, boosted national pride and reduced crime virtually overnight. The first thing he did was shut down newspapers and radio stations that disagreed with the majority view - which also happened to be his view. Free speech promotes inefficiency, unrest and too much thinking. All that talking gets us into trouble all the time. All those peacenicks in the 30s made Hitler and Tojo think we were a pushover and led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The soft-talking government we elected in the 70's made the Ayatollah think they could make hostages of our embassy staff to embarrass us on the world stage. If we could make everybody shut up, then the other Nations of the World would finally understand us because we'd be more like them. In most countries of the world, television and radio stations are controlled by the government. Surprisingly little gets through that is disagreeable. Now isn't that a more enlightened way to run things. Think how much happier we would all be if we didn't have to watch all that arguing and wrangling on the nightly news here in the States.

2. Freedom of Religion - Religion is the most powerful force known to man. If you can make all religious authorities say the same thing, it's easier to control people, easier to make them do what you think they "should" do, and easier to isolate and eliminate groups whose ideas you find repugnant. It would be easier that way to create one big religion that makes people be more moral or get rid of religion altogether since religions only serve to make people feel guilty for doing things they the way they want to do them.

3. The Right to Bear Arms - If all people can carry weapons, it's much harder for a government to enforce its will when the people do not agree with what the government is doing. If you can take away everyone's weapons, the rate of gun crime will go down because the government can more easily control the populace the media and the spread of information and ideas. The government would then be able to make people "feel" better by telling them the crime rate had gone down (even if it hadn't) because there would be little way for anyone to find out any different. Government leaders could more easily consolidate and retain power. That way really smart people (who ought to be running everything anyway) could force us not so smart people to behave ourselves, do what they want us to do and not gripe so much - a major cause of unrest in America.

4. Limits on Taxation - (If the smart people in government could take more of our money, then they could redistribute it more fairly and evenly so no people would ever be hungry (or fat), be anxious (or well-informed), be ignorant (or too smart for their own good) or be troublesome (if someone shoots up a school we won't have to fool with a pesky trial, national media attention or any of that upsetting stuff. We could just take the kids out and shoot them and cover it up in the press so nobody would know and be troubled by the incident and no other kids would be able to copy cat these violent acts.)

5. Free Trade - If the smart people in government could decide how trade should be conducted then other nations would finally understand Americans. If the smart people in the government could make it so everybody got the same amount of pay so no one would be upset because someone made more than them, then you wouldn’t have the problem of the ambitious, high performing, hard working types getting more than their share of the money. You'd never lose your job no matter how poorly you did it and only smart government people would live in big mansions instead of movie stars and corporate executives - government officials deserve a higher standard of living after all because they're so much smarter than we are. We haven't had a really well regulated economy since the fall of the Soviet Union. Remember how you never used to hear the Russians complaining about their economy.

6. Our republican style of government - By having so many elected officials and limiting elections to the rules in the Constitution, we're always having to mess around with electing a new government every few years. If we could go to mass "democratic" elections, then someone who was really a good talker might be able to get a 62% approval rating for what he was doing - say if the economy was good - and then he could get himself elected to a third or fourth term - maybe even for life - and then he could gradually get all his buddies elected too and then we wouldn't have to think about elections anymore because we could do away with them and keep this really cool guy in office that makes us all feel good about ourselves. Best of all, we'd never hear about dimpled chads or butterfly ballots any more. The smart guys in government could just recount elections until the will of the people was revealed. Wouldn't it be great if we had a nice stable government like Cuba or Libya.

These are some of the things I think are wrong with America. If you could just fix these things then we'd never have to worry our simple heads about the country's moral dilemma, taxes, gun control, abortion, TV, the War in Iraq or anything else.

Just One Man's Opinion....

Tom King

Monday, November 14, 2005

Regional Service Planning - Custom or Spec, what's it gonna be?

Once again, we're hearing rumblings complaining about Greater East Texas Transportation Assn. being one of the lead agencies. People are asking "Who is GETTA?" and "Why should GETTA be there?" "They don't know what it takes to be transportation provider." "They don't represent everybody." "They're divisive and are responsible for too much negative outflow."

There've even been a couple of attempts by the COG (that we know of) to get county commissioners and city officials to name ETCOG as the one, the only, the true leader of regional transportation service planning - and this happened weeks after transportation stakeholder groups had already spoken and named TXDOT, GETTA and ETCOG as co-leads.

And the COG can't figure out why we don't trust them....

Here's why GETTA should be one of the lead agencies.

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WHO GETTA IS:

Greater East Texas Transportation Association is a coalition of East Texas transportation stakeholders, users and providers, funders and regulators organized for the following purpose:

  1. To create an open discussion process about transportation challenges faced by seniors, people with disabilities, low income workers and families, the homeless, commuters, tourists and transportation providers.
  2. To plan solutions to specific transportation problems and initiate projects that address specific community transportation needs.
  3. To recommend funding and service implementation strategies to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Department.
  4. To promote regional service planning and effective transportation coordination.

GETTA HISTORY:

GETTA began as a TxDOT Tyler District initiative to create an advisory committee for the DOT’s 5310 rural transit program. The group quickly identified issues beyond the 5310 program that needed the attention of some sort of community advisory group. Prior to the creation of GETTA, regional service planning existed only as an annual exercise by regional transit providers and the East Texas Council of Governments done to meet the requirements of federal and state funders and to address the planning needs of the transit providers.

In the 4 years GETTA has existed as an organization, the members of the group have obtained grants for studies of regional transportation resources, promoted new local projects, worked with one area transit provider to obtain a congressional earmark for funding for an important transit project and participated in the process of restructuring how regional service planning is done.

WHY GETTA SHOULD BE INVOLVED:

GETTA is an organization whose members represent transit users, transportation and human rights advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, the business community, health and human services, consumers and transportation providers. The state legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission have mandated that regional transportation service planning WILL blend provider-based planning and consumer-based planning priorities. It is critical that consumers take their place at the table to watchdog the process. GETTA, because it is not a government agency, can ask questions and express concern that organizations dependent on federal and state funding cannot ask, will not ask or dare not ask. GETTA has the flexibility to change its structure, composition or membership makeup to adapt to its new role as co-lead agency with TxDOT and ETCOG in the regional service planning process.

Already it has been suggested that the membership of GETTA be changed to include representation from other districts in the region and to cover a larger geographical area. This is possible for GETTA, whereas ETCOG and TXDOT are what they are and cannot make such changes in structure. It has been suggested that, because of the role GETTA has been asked to play as one of the three lead agencies for regional service planning, that we ask TxDOT and ETCOG to resign as formal voting members of GETTA to address concerns about double voting and the threat that GETTA’s vote on key issues could be tainted as a result by the dual membership on GETTA of the other two members of the lead agency team – namely TxDOT and ETCOG.

The point is, because GETTA is what it is, it can do these kinds of things to insure that consumers are well-represented at the table. In bringing consumer based planning into the regional planning process the great danger is that we would fall back to the old ways of doing things in which plans are made out of sight of the public and then presented to the public for comment – essentially for an up or down vote. This is basically provider based planning in that providers attempt to guess what the public wants without the benefit of ever having the public in the room to tell planners what it is they want. Plans are always better when the people for whom you are planning are in the room to tell you what they want and to give you ideas about what might work best.

It’s the difference between a “spec” house and a custom house. Builders like to build spec houses. They get to build them the way they want to, they get to cut corners and they don’t get asked to do the difficult or impossible or to change things halfway through the construction. Of course, spec houses can be harder to sell because if you don’t get it exactly right you could wind up having to sit on an unsold house for a long time till the right buyer wanders in who happens to like what the builder did.

Builders hate custom houses because the owner wants what he wants and sometimes what he wants is hard to do or adds to the cost. Custom houses are harder to build, but then the advantage is that for all the headache for the builder, the house is already sold before you hammer in the first nail.

The big debate in this whole thing is between those who believe transportation planning should be done on “spec” and those who believe it should be a custom design. Apparently the legislature thinks it can be a combination of both approaches. Like a good custom house job, it can be done in a way that meets the needs of both the contractor and the buyer. After all, we’re building a system for the people who ride it, not for transit providers. At the same time, transit providers need to be able to function efficiently and well in order for their agencies to stay healthy and to be able to continue providing services so they need to be an integral part of the process.

The problem is the providers have never NOT been considered an integral part of the process. Providers have always been drivers of the process.

Till now, however, the consumers have never been considered integral to planning. Historically, our job as consumers has always been seen by COG leadership as (and I quote) “to make the transit provider happy in order to get a ride,” not to tell transit providers how to do their jobs.

So, now that has all been changed by legislative proclamation. So does that mean that magically, an entrenched bureaucracy is going to suddenly open its doors and let us tromp through the house with our muddy boots on? That’s not terribly likely.

Ideally what we’ll get to eventually is a good partnership between builder and buyer. Unfortunately, the head builder in this case apparently doesn’t trust the buyer and wants to make sure he “controls” how much the buyer gets to participate. Every concession transit users have got so far has been taken, not given; has been protested and resisted by the self-appointed leadership. This is a disturbing trend and does not bode well for the future. Repeatedly we’ve been told that we don’t know anything about transit so we should sit down and shut up and let the pros take care of this for us.

Well, we don’t buy it and neither does TxDOT or the legislature apparently. We’d rather we were freely invited and welcomed to participate at the table, but if that’s not going to be the case, then we’ll bring our own chairs if need be – especially since we keep having to check the legs of the chairs we’ve been provided so far to see if they’ve been sawn through or unscrewed.

Someone at ETCOG recently lamented, “I can see right now you guys will never be satisfied.”

That’s only true if ETCOG isn't going to do anything differently. We just aren’t satisfied yet and with what we’re seeing so far, we don’t have a lot of reason to feel satisfied (or secure) either.

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Slouching towards Bethlehem

"What is this rough beast
slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?"
W.B. Yeats

I don’t know about the rest of the transportation stakeholders in East Texas, but I’m beginning to get tired of the weekly meetings that ETCOG keeps calling as it pushes forward the regional service planning process at a breakneck pace. It’s forcing the process along faster than unpaid volunteers can keep up.

Of course, that could well be the whole point.

Meetings are announced without checking to see who can attend. The last couple of meetings that they posted drew comments from key committee members who weren’t going to be able to come including the director of Tyler Transit and today we learned that the entire TxDOT delegation can’t come to the March 9 stakeholder meeting at which the steering committee will be chosen according to ETCOG’s Mark Sweeney.

It’s time to put on the brakes! If you’d like to see a change in how the lead agency team is structured, I recommend dropping an e-mail to TxDOT’s Shawna Russell, Commissioner Andrade’s staff member who has been bird-dogging the regional service planning process in East Texas. Here’s what I’m writing to her:

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TO: "Shawna Russell" SRUSSE1@dot.state.tx.us

Dear Shawna,

I am concerned that the regional service planning process in East Texas is not being well managed. My concerns are:

  1. East Texas Council of Governments has virtually assumed the chair of the lead agency team without any formal consensus by the other two entities elected by stakeholders to serve as an integral part of the lead agency team. I intend to propose tomorrow that TxDOT staff direct the lead agency team. We’ve never formally chosen a chair of the team. Mark Sweeney simply assumed the job and nobody has challenged that and election of a chair is unlikely to ever appear on the agenda.
  2. ETCOG has scheduled a rapid-fire series of regional stakeholder meetings and lead agency meetings designed to appoint a steering committee to oversee the lead agency. The meetings have been called almost weekly with relatively short notice and little consultation with other participants. The most recent meetings will be held without key members in attendance, including a large announced stakeholder meeting which TxDOT staff members are unable to attend due to prior commitments. I believe this places an undue burden on transportation stakeholders too, most of whom are either volunteers or work at full time jobs from which they cannot be absent on a weekly basis. The whole thing gives the appearance of an attempt to wear out the public and reduce attendance by non-providers. ETCOG staff can attend meetings as often as they like. They get paid to do just that and they get reimbursement for their mileage. Most of the rest of us do not.
  3. Consumer representatives at the most recent stakeholder meeting left the meeting early. Most had traveled to the meeting via Mini-Bus. If they left early in order to meet Mini-Bus’s schedule, I am concerned that this skews any votes taken later in the meeting after the large contingent of users left. Mini-Bus has, in the past, made it a practice to pickup passengers by 2 pm in order to get everyone delivered home before their offices close.
  4. I think it is important that TxDOT take a more directive role here in East Texas until a competent and well-trusted, community chosen leadership team can be formed. I believe TxDOT should force ETCOG to cancel and reschedule all further meetings until the lead agency team can meet with full representation of all members and, under TxDOT direction, choose a fair and balanced management structure.
  5. I believe that the local TxDOT districts should assume the lead at this point and use their Evergreen contracting ability to bring in an outside consultant to guide the regional service planning process forward to the point where stakeholders in East Texas are assured that we have a process that will truly balance consumer-based and provider-based planning requirements. This would remove the need for an extensive RFP process, remove the supervision and selection of the consultant out of the hands of the agency most likely to receive funds to administer planning dollars and take the process of creating a steering committee entirely out of the hands of the agencies that will be supervised by the committee, thereby increasing the likelihood that we have a representative committee at the end. I shall propose this at the next two meetings.

Please extend my thanks to Commissioner Andrade for her attention to East Texas’ regional service planning process and for deploying staff to monitor the meetings.
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Note to ETJTA members and friends: If you wish to add your voice to mine, please feel free to cut and paste and copy and send your own version to the Commissioner’s office.


Tom King
Coordinator, East Texas Just Transportation Alliance