ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Housing Authority plans to sue the city of St. Petersburg if Mayor Rick Kriseman follows through on his threat to remove three board members for lax oversight of the agency.
Housing agency board members, including the three at threat of removal, voted Monday for agency attorney Charley Harris to try and negotiate a compromise with city attorneys. But if that fails, Harris is authorized to file a lawsuit that will claim Kriseman is overstepping his authority by removing members because he does not agree with their actions.
Harris, an attorney with Trenam Law, said Kriseman's motive appears to be to remove board members who support embattled CEO Tony Love.
While state law gives a mayor authority to appoint and remove board members, the Housing Authority is autonomous. Kriseman's actions amount to interference with that independence, Harris said, citing a Feb. 22 statement made by the mayor that he had "zero confidence" in Love and that he would only appoint new commissioners who are "equally troubled by Mr. Love’s job performance."
"This is a line in the sand," Harris said. "If I don't try to protect the integrity of the decision-making process of this board, then the next time, it'll be a different issue that the city or some third party will try to interfere on because they don't approve a decision."
Kriseman last month authorized city attorneys to begin the process of removing board members Harry Harvey, Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White after the three did not respond to his recommendation that they resign. In an email to City Council members, Kriseman said the three had "neglected to engage in necessary due diligence." He also decided last month against reappointing Basha P. Jordan Jr., and Jo Ann Nesbitt to second terms.
He made his decision after City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch conducted a review of the board's performance in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found it approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love in 2017 even though some board members said they hadn't seen his evaluation.
The $10,000 jump, which increased Love's annual salary to $150,000 in 2017, was awarded despite written reports from senior staffers that Love routinely shouted, belittled staff and was causing the agency to lose key experienced employees.
Another Times story found that Love in 2016 lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families and used agency funds to pay for his furniture and electric bills. That report led to the agency being cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing low-income housing.
City officials declined to comment on the threat of legal action but said they plan to continue the process of removal. State law allows a mayor to remove board members for "inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office." The process allows board members to be heard in person or by counsel before City Council members, who would vote on the Mayor's recommendation.
Harris told the three board members they might fare better in court.
"It would be more preferable to address this in a forum that is fair and neutral," Harris said. "And I do not perceive City Council to be fair and neutral."
The vote to authorize legal action was a repeat of a vote made by the housing agency last week at a hastily convened "emergency meeting" that may have violated state laws requiring public meetings be adequately noticed and that no action be taken if a board quorum is not present.
The Wednesday morning meeting was attended by only three board members and was not noticed on the agency's website. Board members were advised of the meeting by email less than 24 hours before.
Love told board members that was in keeping with the agency's bylaws, which includes a provision for emergency meetings.
When asked by board member Terri Lipsey Scott if the meeting violated Florida's Government in the Sunshine law, Harris said he would have to research the question but had recommended that the meeting be re-noticed and another vote held.
The dispute between the city and its housing agency could be an expensive proposition for taxpayers, who would have to pay for attorneys on both sides.
And since Harris expects to be a witness in the case, he told board members they will have to hire a second firm to represent them in court.
He said he will work to find a firm that charges the same "discounted rate" that he charges the agency. Invoices show he bills at $250 per hour.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.
Correction: The St. Petersburg Housing Authority attorney is Charley Harris. An earlier version of this story misspelled his first name.