Political Futbol

Make no mistake about it," wrote Doc Lawson, the director of the Houston Metropolitan Area Youth Soccer League, in a January 10 memo to his staff. "We are in a war and what is at stake is nothing less than our children's futures. I am fighting to recruit as many children as I can to fight this war. The enemy forces of POVERTY, DESPAIR, FEAR AND DARKNESS which manifest themselves in the form of Dope Dealers, Street Gangs, Pimps, Prostitutes and Alcoholics are already winning the war."

The overwrought rhetoric aside, it's hard to argue with Lawson's point: youth recreation programs help keep kids off the streets and promote healthy social skills.

But the casualties Lawson's war has been taking lately aren't the lowlifes and wastrels tempting Houston's youth. They're employees of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, more than 30 of whom were reprimanded, suspended or fired in December for allegedly failing to properly manage the city's year-old soccer program.

That was more than a bit ironic, considering the Lanier administration has consistently proclaimed the program to be a rousing success. The city claims more than 5,600 boys and girls signed up for the debut season last spring, with the number of registrants growing to 8,500 for the fall season. "We're proud of 8,500," says parks department spokeswoman Susan Christian.

There's really no other way the department could feel, at least publicly, since inner-city youth soccer is a high priority of the numbers-obsessed Bob Lanier. The mayor even devoted one of those self-glorifying campaign commercials he aired last fall to praising the virtues of the program.

Bill Smith, Lanier's parks director, certainly understands the need to ensure that the program looks good. As Smith wrote last May in a memo to the staff of his department's 55 community centers, who would handle the marketing of the program, "This program is the largest of its kind in the nation and must be very well coordinated to achieve the success intended by the mayor."

Christian says that even though youth soccer has caught on in a big way, many children were deprived of a chance to participate because community center employees didn't carry out their assigned duties. Thus, the disciplinary actions. "If you don't do your job, then you need to be accountable," she explains.

That's not how the workers see it. Henry Gray, who received a "final reprimand" from the city, has led a contingent of the punished to complain before City Council that they're being unfairly blamed for the program's shortcomings.

"They came in and just dumped the program on us," Gray says. "As far as marketing, they didn't give us anything."

The parks department did hold a couple of mandatory weekend coaching seminars for those who needed to learn the basics of the game, but its expectations were never clearly mapped out. That left the soccer office and its workers in the field constantly at odds, as program coordinator Carlos Galan acknowledged in a memo recounting registration problems at one park. "All in all," Galan wrote, "this E confirms (yet again) the poor communications between the community centers and the central office."

The root of the problem, according to sources in the parks department's central office, is Smith's damn-the-cost bid to instantly create a showcase program for Lanier and further feather the mayor's cap before he leaves office. To accomplish that goal, sources say, registration figures have been inflated to cover the program's poor performance. "If they're telling you [they had 8,500 kids], they're lying," says a parks employee who works with the program.

Pinning down the actual numbers is tricky. A request by the Press for registration documents from the city produced no proof, and further requests for a breakdown of registration by community centers elicited a handwritten list. The records in the soccer office are computerized, says Christian, but the computer was said to be down when the Press asked for a printout.

If the numbers were calculated by counting the names on registration sheets, they likely would be misleading. Many kids, enticed by free uniforms and shoes which they either had to give back or which never materialized at all, signed up for the program but immediately dropped out. And under pressure from Smith to generate long lists, several community center employees filled out bogus registration forms and turned them in, skewing the numbers even more, according to one parks administrator.

Perhaps typical was the result noted by soccer employee Rudy Rodriguez in a May 1995 memo. "At this time, the list of soccer players from Eastwood Park were 39," Rodriguez wrote. "Only 12 kids have decided to play." The handwritten city list shows 85 registrants at Eastwood for last spring.

"They didn't care if the kids stayed in the program or not," says a parks department source. "They just wanted to say, 'We had 10,000 kids.' " The actual number of participants, the source figures, is about half of the parks department's figure.  

Doc Lawson, a former pro player who was recruited by Smith to duplicate the success of a similar program he launched in Dallas, addressed the issue in his January memo. "Some people have made the comment that the Recreation Program (Soccer) is nothing but a political numbers game," Lawson wrote before diving headlong into his take-no-prisoners exhortation to subordinates.

Parks spokeswoman Christian says the department stands by its registration figures. But to avoid confusion in the future, it has established "minimum goals" for the registration of 300 kids per community center for the upcoming spring season. In addition, the department plans to work closely with the center staffs, requesting and providing at least five updates from now till registration ends March 31. Employees will not necessarily face disciplinary action if they fail to meet the goal, says Christian, as long as they make a good-faith effort.

The parks department has pursued another strategy to quickly pump up the soccer program -- spending hundreds of thousands of dollars that aren't in its budget. From an early estimate of $242,738 for the current fiscal year, the projected expenses for the program have steadily ballooned to $897,400, a number included in an October 10 department summary of its youth programs.

Christian claims that the latest calculation actually is around $750,000. "It's just an anticipated expenditure," she says. "I've never seen it in a budget."

Tracking the program's expenses is no mean feat. Lawson, for example, is paid by donors such as Snickers, as well as the city. The candy bar money is funneled into an account controlled by the Parks Board, a nonprofit adjunct to the parks department. The city pays Lawson through a temp agency.

While documents the city provided to the Press show the soccer budget to have increased inexplicably every few months, they shed little light on the actual costs of the program. For instance, a large chunk of the labor is provided by parks workers other than soccer employees, among them community center and maintenance staffs. But those labor costs are not reflected in the already-bloated soccer budget.

The program has other hidden costs. When Smith was negotiating to hire noted women's coach Kyle Clark from California to train the program's coaches, Clark, according to sources in the department, pointed out her boyfriend, Wayne McVay, would also be needing a job. So Smith hired Clark and set McVay up with a job in the parks security division, later bragging about his two-fer to underlings. McVay has since found another job. "He was hired in a temporary position, because we needed some help in that area," says Christian.

But with Lanier's stamp of approval, extra money for the soccer program has been no object. Last May, the mayor ordered that no cap be put on enrollment, even though it would bust the budget. "Rather than a burden," Lanier wrote Smith, "I would look on such enrollment as a tremendous victory. We can solicit such funds as we can get from the private sector, but if we fall short, the city just has to take the plug position."

A current parks department estimate puts the donations for the fiscal year ending this June 30 at $375,000, a significant increase over the $120,000 collected from Snickers, Fiesta and other sponsors in the last fiscal year. So far, however, none of that $375,000 has been forthcoming.

And if the parks department follows through with its plans, either the general fund will have to be further tapped or sponsors will have to open their wallets wider. The soccer program has been such a hit, Smith wrote Lanier in an October 24 summary of youth sports programs, that the department proposed to add or expand eight others, all modeled after soccer. The estimated cost for the first year was more than $2.6 million, rising to almost $6.5 million in the fifth year.

Though the parks department has been under scrutiny lately for consistently busting its budget since Smith came aboard three years ago, the director doesn't seem concerned. In a recent memo to Finance and Administration director Richard Lewis, Smith noted an expected $485,637 shortfall in the soccer budget. "I'm sure you can appreciate that given the expanded scope of numerous youth sports programs," he wrote matter-of-factly, "this shortfall is going to cause significant budget problems in FY 96."

Money may not be an issue if Lanier continues to say, "Just do it." And the imbalance may be alleviated somewhat if the parks department continues to fire and suspend community center staff. The 30 employees disciplined over soccer, however, are appealing the decisions.  

Some would seem to have strong cases. Many of the actions came without the earlier warnings suggested in the city's informal disciplinary guidelines. And while some employees may well have been derelict, others had perfect track records. Prior to his "final reprimand," for instance, Henry Gray had been commended for helping turn around the troubled Shady Lane Center on the city's northeast side. "I think he did a fantastic job," says his former supervisor, Elois Moore-Benson, who recently retired. "And I was in a community meeting where Bill Smith said he was doing a fantastic job. Now, I can't understand how you can drop from fantastic to nothing."

Even more troubling to Moore-Benson was that Gray's reprimand had her name on it. "[My superiors] wanted me to sign it," she says. "I said, 'I'm not gonna sign off on anything like this.' I didn't write the letter, and I didn't have any input in it."

The sweeping punishments reflect deeper troubles in the parks department, says Moore-Benson. "I worked for recreation 29 years and six months," she says. "This is something I've never encountered, and it's something I don't understand.

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