A deeply moving scene last night at the board of directors meeting of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, our regional transit agency: Public seating in the large chamber was filled wall-to-wall with ex-offenders pleading for the very thing we should all want for them -- honest work.
I told you about this last March. It's a program brought to DART by the Peter Johnson Foundation to create well-paid jobs for ex-offenders by allowing them to clean up disused railroad right-of-way and salvage the track and other materials. DART seemed to show enthusiasm early on, but the deal has been mired in unexplained bureaucratic delay for months.
The issue is people who have served time for crimes, are now out of prison and crime-free but cannot get jobs above minimum wage because of their criminal records. The track salvage proposal would pay better wages and also offer important job skill training. The entities asking for the salvage contacts are two minority-owned railroad construction firms, each with deep history as a DART subcontractor.
Peter Johnson is head of a nonprofit civil rights group representing hundreds of men and women seeking honest work, most but not all of whom are black. As he made his emotional appeal to the DART board, the packed chamber sat watching silently, only occasionally offering polite applause.
"These men come to my office," Johnson said, "and some of them sit at my desk and literally weep because they are torn between going back to either selling dope or watching their babies without diapers that they cannot buy. They are torn between going back to doing burglaries or watching their women leave them because they cannot pay their bills."
He recited the long process by which DART executives seemed at first open to the proposal, meeting with Johnson in his foundation offices and even offering him instruction on how to frame his proposal, then more recently stopped even taking his calls.
"Please, I plead with you," he told the board. "Please give us an opportunity to save taxpayers money by allowing these men to become taxpayers as opposed to living in prison, where the taxpayers have to take care of them."
The irony in this situation is that DART didn't even know it owned the track in question until Johnson's group drove about the city, took pictures of the track and presented those pictures and maps to DART executives. Most of the track in question is in sidings that DART inherited when it acquired right-of-ways from other lines. The proposal is for the two contractors to remove the rail, remediate the right-of-ways and pay themselves by selling rail, spikes, ties and gravel salvaged from the right-of-ways.
The right-of-ways, now idle and neglected, would be cleaned up at zero cost to DART or taxpayers. The contractors, both of whom have experience hiring ex-offenders, have promised to hire them for this work, pay better than minimum wage, provide benefits and also provide special training in machinery operation and other skills and experience that could lead to more jobs later for the ex-offenders.
The land in question often does not belong to DART, but the tracks do. Early on in negotiations, Johnson was told the contractors involved would have to acquire special insurance to cover operations on private property. He says his two contractors borrowed money and acquired the insurance at a cost of several thousand dollars, only to have communications with DART suspended without explanation.
After the meeting I spoke with DART board chairman John Danish, who told me he thinks Johnson's idea has merit and should be taken seriously by the board. "I plan to present it to the Committee of the Whole," he said -- a step that would put the idea squarely before the entire board. "I think this is an idea that the whole board needs to learn more about."
Two hours before the board meeting, dozens of men and women began gathering quietly in Johnson's offices in the Domingo Garcia Tower Building in Oak Cliff. Johnson led them in prayer, then ushered them down to the street for a bus ride across the river to DART headquarters downtown. From Oak Cliff to downtown, the mood of the crowd was somber and a little hard to read -- intense or desperate, probably some of both.
After the meeting as they waited for the return bus ride, their mood was unchanged. People like this don't give in easily to hope.