2009 News

Few disagreements in TMO 'accountability session'

By MIKE TOLSON Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Nov. 30, 2009, 10:18PM

Mayoral candidates Gene Locke and Annise Parker took turns making promises Monday night to a local community activist group that presented them with its wish list of priorities for the next administration.

The Metropolitan Organization touched on four areas in its "accountability session," asking each candidate for agreement or disagreement with its stated positions. There was only slight disagreement between Locke and Parker, and none with the TMO concerns.

Each candidate agreed that Houston police officers should not be used to enforce immigration laws, that more police officers need to be trained to replace an aging force, that street construction is hampered by a cumbersome capital improvements program, and that the city should support a job training project for low-income and underemployed adults developed by one of TMO's sister organizations in Austin.

Locke said the training program, which will require $1 million in city funds in its initial phase, would be a priority in his administration.

"Even in hard times, you have to invest in yourself," Locke said. "It is part of our civic responsibility."

Parker said she supported the Capital IDEA program but would not commit to it unless she knows the money is available to pay for it.

"It's a great program and would be excellent for the city of Houston," Parker said at the event held at Trinity United Metropolitan Church in the Third Ward. "But I can't say now that we would be able to fund it for its full cycle."

Locke and Parker disagreed on whether the Houston Police Department should allow recruits trained under a Houston Community College program to be accepted as fledgling officers. Locke said HPD should train all its own cadets because it has higher standards and longer sessions. Parker said the other training programs produce properly trained cadets who receive the same state certification as those from the HPD academy.

Both candidates agreed that public safety would be improved by more joint policing - using officers from other agencies to handle some calls and patrol some areas now handled by HPD.

Parker said flood control improvements would be a cornerstone of her administration. She said many of TMO's concerns over poor streets and needed capital improvements, including additional greenspace, would be addressed as a matter of course by reworking infrastructure to minimize flooding. Locke said that more parks and recreational amenities were essential for giving residents the quality of life that a great city should possess.

Both candidates agreed that illegal dumping and compliance with city codes concerning vacant lots and buildings were major issues that needed to be tackled. Locke said the city should work in partnership with civic groups and citizen patrols to identify the most urgent needs, arguing that "the city can only do so much" on its own. Parker said the Neighborhood Protection Division of HPD has become forgotten in recent years and needs "to be raised up and re-emphasized" to get rid of eyesores before they become threats to public safety.

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Mayor hopefuls agree on job training program



Oct. 11, 2009, 9:09PM

Houston's four leading mayoral candidates agreed Sunday that a job training program supported by community activists was worthwhile, but City Controller Annise Parker said the city couldn't afford to invest local tax funds in the program.

During an "accountability session" attended by more than 1,000 members of The Metropolitan Organization, the mayoral contenders and candidates for the City Council, controller and the Houston school board agreed to support most elements of the nonprofit organization's agenda.

Harris County Department of Education trustee Roy Morales, however, distanced himself from his three mayoral rivals on local enforcement of immigration laws. Morales said he would change a police policy prohibiting officers from asking citizens outside the jail about their immigration status and supported screening inmates in local jails to identify illegal immigrants.

Parker, Councilman Peter Brown and former City Attorney Gene Locke said they supported jail screening but would retain the order preventing police from asking people in the community about immigration status.

TMO's primary focus was on developing a local job training program for low-income and underemployed residents. The group's leaders said they had obtained commitments of $270,000 from local institutions and $250,000 from the state, and they asked the city candidates to commit $1 million in city funding over three years.

All the candidates expressed support for the program, which TMO said would return $5 in economic benefits for every dollar spent. "It's not a lot of money over three years," Brown said of the requested city investment.

Parker, however, said shrinking local revenues would make it impossible to support the program through the city's general fund. Using federal funds could require cutting other program, she said.

All the candidates agreed to work for better cooperation among local law enforcement agencies and to strengthen community policing strategies. And most agreed with TMO's requests to spend more on streets and drainage, neighborhood improvements, expanded library hours and materials and after-school programs, but didn't specify how to pay for these services.

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A cheeky request for city funds?

By RICK CASEY Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Oct. 9, 2009, 12:02AM

It takes a lot of nerve to ask mayoral hopefuls to commit money to a new program these days, but that's what will happen Sunday when the major candidates face hundreds of citizens at an "accountability session" staged by The Metropolitan Organization.

TMO, a church-based community organization, wants $1 million over the next three years for a new job-training program.

My bet is that most, if not all, of the candidates will take the pledge, or at least agree to try to find the money.

Outrageous? Maybe not.

The Legislature this year overwhelmingly passed and the governor signed a bill authorizing $25 million over the next two years to encourage exactly such programs.

The legislation was sought by Republican State Comptroller Susan Combs in a study she issued last December showing a vital need to train workers for technical jobs that don't require college degrees. The Texas economy, the report said, could suffer if such training doesn't take place.

The study indicated community colleges are effective at such training.

The TMO proposal would recruit low-wage workers and give them intensive support as they go through community college training programs. The program differs from others in some key ways.

- The workers, often single parents who are struggling to stay afloat, meet regularly with a counselor and a support group. Issues of day care for their children, help with transportation and other causes of high dropout rates in standard job-training programs are dealt with.

- The program will work with the community colleges to develop special, intensive, five-day-a-week courses designed to get participants up to speed with math, reading comprehension and writing skills needed before they can succeed in college courses.

- Area employers will help students know what fields the jobs are in.

All good in theory, but can it work?

The answer is that it already does. Sister organizations of TMO established successful programs years ago and have graduated thousands of participants.

Back in 1996 Paul Osterman, a labor economist at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, published a study funded by the Ford Foundation showing the San Antonio program, Project Quest, more than doubled the average participant's income after two years or less in the program.

The result was that taxpayers received a rapid return on their investment. Participants not only started paying more taxes, but needed less in food stamps and other forms of support. What's more, the prospects for their children jumped markedly.

A national expert on job- training programs, Osterman said Thursday that the San Antonio project and Capital IDEA, an Austin program based on it, "are among the best, if not the very best, in the country."

"It's a proven model," he said. "It's not like they're taking a risk."

The highly regarded Aspen Institute is in the process of evaluating the Austin program, but lead researcher Maureen Conway, who has studied job training programs for more than a decade, says she's already seen enough to be impressed.

"They're phenomenal," she said of Austin's Capital IDEA. "The way they use their resources, invest in their staff, use technology."

TMO has already sold some key Houston players on the plan. The United Way has agreed to put up $50,000 in matching funds. Lone Star College has pledged $30,000 in scholarships and $16,000 in staff time for developing curriculum. And federally funded Workforce Solutions has promised $124,000 for child care and other services.

So is it unmitigated gall to ask for a few hundred thousand a year from the city for the next three years?

The leading candidates all support tax breaks for companies willing to move here. If that's a good investment, isn't it wise to invest in workers who would take those jobs?

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Protesters lack predecessors' style CASEY: Cynicism not needed

Rick Casey Houston Chronicle

Wed 08/12/2009 Houston Chronicle, Section B, Page 1, 3 STAR R.O. Edition


I went to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's "town hall meeting" on health care Tuesday expecting to see rude behavior.

I did.

And some of it was from strident opponents of the health care plan under construction in Congress.

But my "takeaway lesson" from the event was this: If you're an elected official who begins her town hall meeting by insisting you are here to listen to people's concerns, don't talk on your cell phone while a lady is telling hers.

Jackson Lee explained that she wasn't being rude. In Washington, she said, you had to be able to "multi-task" in order to be effective.

Maybe so, but back home in Texas it is still rude for a hostess to answer her cell without apology while someone is addressing her.

Other than that, the meeting wasn't bad. A dozen or so people who bitterly oppose government health care reform made their points, sometimes with considerable volume. Others among the 150 or so present voiced their support or their concerns.

But the meeting wasn't what some conservative leaders are saying it was.

Proud of the irony, men such as Adam Brandon are describing the uprisings as the application of the techniques of the late Saul Alinsky, sometimes called the father of community organizing and author of a book called Rules for Radicals.

Brandon is vice president for communications for FreedomWorks, an organization headed by former Texas congressman and now Washington super-lobbyist Dick Armey. The group has skillfully used the Internet to arm protesters with town meeting schedules, talking points and tactics for putting representatives on the defensive.

Knowing when to be rude

The meetings, it is suggested, are a version of "accountability sessions" famously employed by Alinsky-style community organizations.

These conservatives understand one thing about Alinsky: His tactics could be rude. But they differed from the current outbreaks in two ways.

First, they were much more creative than just yelling at politicians.

Second, organizations in the Alinsky network got truly rude only when it was the only way to get to the table.

Alinsky, a longtime union organizer, understood that rich people had only to ask quietly. Working-class people had to be more creative.

How to get a meeting

The first Alinsky organization in Texas was San Antonio's Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). When they couldn't get powerful banker Tom Frost to meet with them back in the mid-1970s, they formed long lines to change dollars into change, then returned to the lines to turn the change back into dollars.

They got their meeting.

It's been some time since Texas members of Alinsky's coalition, the Industrial Area Foundation, have had to be rude to get to the table.

"I've been with the organization over 10 years, and I've never seen us do anything like this," said Father Kevin Collins, pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and a leader of Houston's The Metropolitan Organization.

Alinsky's mission was to teach powerless people how to win at politics.

With the help of a trained organizer, members of TMO hold hundreds of house meetings to hear concerns of their members. They decide what issues can be addressed with political action. Then they come up with proposals, sometimes with expert help.

Then they meet with business and political leaders to build support for the plan.

By the time they have an "accountability session" in which hundreds of their members face a stage full of elected officials, most of the officials are usually on board.

When to polarize

At Jackson Lee's town hall meeting, one of the protesters shouted, "Government can't do anything right!"

But Alinsky organizations are not so cynical. They know that government will do right by those who exercise power. If the people don't, the money will.

One of Alinsky's mottos was "No permanent allies, no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests."

"We will teach people that sometimes it is necessary to polarize," said one veteran organizer. "But you have to de-polarize."

Remember San Antonio banker Tom Frost? He is now honorary chairman of the board of Project Quest, a tax-funded job training program won by COPS with his assistance.

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