in Houston, Texas
Hearing 'State of Metro' speech will set you back $65
Thursday, Oct 29, 2009, 04:13PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Want to know what the state of Houston's Metro system is? It'll only cost you $65 to find out!

Yep, kids, that's right -- Metro Chairman David Wolff, who may not have a job for much longer, is going to give a "State of Metro" speech next Thursday, Nov. 5, and it'll cost you $65 to get in to hear it.

That's according to the press release we got from Metro, which says the speech will be given at a luncheon put on by the Greater Houston Partnership. It'll cost you $65 to get in.

The release sure makes it sound like interesting stuff is gonna be told at this $65-a-head gathering:

It’s been a momentous year for METRO. Consider the following:

+ Negotiated a $1.46 billion dollar contract for the expansion of the its light-rail network
+ Secured federal funding in the President’s FY2010 budget proposal
+ Cleared another FTA hurdle in obtaining Final Design approval for the North and Southeast corridors
+ Celebrated two historic groundbreakings this past July

These major developments only scratch the surface of what lies ahead for our great city, and the local economy.

So, what is the current status of construction in the corridors? What challenges does METRO face?

Of course, nowhere in the release does it mention that Metro approved that billion-dollar light rail contract before ever letting the public see it. Or that it has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in no-bid contracts, including one to have oversight of light rail construction done by a guy in California. Or that Wolff's days may be numbered, as at least two of the leading mayoral candidates have said they will can Wolff, and possibly Metro CEO Frank Wilson, if elected. ("Ladies and gentlemen, the state of Metro is that I'm cleaning out my desk.")

It rubs me the wrong way for a government agency to have its "State of" address given out in a forum where people have to pay up $65 just to get in. So I sent my question to Raequel Roberts, Metro's associate vice president for marketing, media & corporate communications -- is there any way for the average person to get in without paying $65?

She wrote me back that the GHP is hosting the event and they set the price (offered at the cut rate of $65, down from $130, by the way), and if wanted a deeper discount, I should contact them. That wasn't quite what I meant. So I wrote back:

I don't want a discount. I'm just a journalist who thinks it's kind of wrong for the head of a public agency to give a "state of his agency" speech in a forum that it costs money to get into. Most average people, including many Metro customers, will not be in a position to shell out $65 (or $130) just to get into a speech to hear how their tax dollars are being spent.

If GHP is intent on charging $65 (or $130), shouldn't Metro/Mr. Wolff maybe give the speech in a public forum that doesn't charge an admission price, where all of the taxpayers and Metro customers can hear what he has to say -- for free?

For an agency that's fighting off allegations that it's mismanaged and that its leadership isn't accountable to the public (see any of the recent televised mayoral debates), this seems like a real "duh" moment to me.

That prompted this response:

Actually, our chairman and president/ceo give multiple speechs to all kinds of groups that often don’t charge any admission. They also address current issues at our board meetings which are not only free to attend, but televised on the municipal channel. The heads of many other organizations speak to the GHP including the mayor, the judge of Harris County and the Port of Houston. I assume you will send similar safe advice to these govt. entities as well.

Since we here at Texas Watchdog are here, in part, to advocate for transparent government, that sounds like a pretty good idea. So I'll do just that.

So, all you mayors, county mayors, county judges, heads of Metro, heads of all government agencies, listen up: You work for us. We pay your salary. We have every right to hear the "State of The City/The County/The Department/Metro/My Cubicle/etc" speeches. If your speech is going to be given at an event hosted by a third party that wants to charge admission, tell them politely that the deal is off. You'll be glad to come and talk to them some other time, but the "State of" speech is something everyone has a right to hear. Even people who don't have $65.

Thursday, 10/29/2009 - 08:43PM

I think the glorified supper club that is GHP allows media free entry to their events. If they don\'t, they should, since they get well over a million dollars a year from City of Houston and Harris County coffers. Yes taxpayers! Your money helps fund this organization, and has been doing so, with little or no oversight, for years!

Joe Stinebaker
Friday, 10/30/2009 - 11:55AM

As the communications director for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, I can speak only to The "State Of The County" Address. We provide a free area in the room for the public and media to hear the address (sorry, no meal), and we actively encourage both to attend through news releases and public alerts. Afterward, Judge Emmett makes himself available at a publicly accessible news conference. In addition, the entire speech is videotaped and made available for some time on the judge's Web site (and GHP's, I believe). We try to ensure that the public is not only welcome, but encouraged, to hear what the judge has to say.

Jennifer Peebles
Saturday, 10/31/2009 - 06:14AM

Mr. Stinebaker,

That's great to hear. No need to apologize for not serving a meal. As long as admission is free, I'm happy.

Thank you for writing in!

Take care,

Jennifer P.

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