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Housing office is one hard fix

TAMPA — For the better part of a decade, a Hillsborough County agency charged with making dreams come true has operated under a pall.

Employees of what is now called the Affordable Housing Office have leveled near constant claims of workplace harassment, incompetent leadership and favoritism in selecting contractors.

More recently, the office was forced to forfeit nearly $3-million in federal grant money due to a blown deadline and broken rules. It will likely soon lose its fourth supervisor in seven years.

Now county commissioners are starting to turn the heat on County Administrator Pat Bean, saying she's ultimately accountable. Commissioners Kevin White, Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe have said nearly as much in public meetings of recent weeks.

But they are not alone. Commissioner Jim Norman, the longest serving member on the board and perhaps Bean's closest ally on it, recounted a recent conversation with her.

"I said, 'Pat, let's be real honest: You need to fire everybody in that department. We've gone through years of this. It's time to say: Everybody, hit the bricks. We need to start over from scratch.' "

One way or the other, problems must be resolved, he finished, "or you're going to be responsible."

Bean said she bears part of the blame. She said she has been aware of management issues before, but said federal reviews had not previously revealed financial problems.

And she said top assistants she relied on to keep tabs on the department did not reveal how grave the situation had become. She recently announced that she is eliminating the job of her top deputy, Wally Hill, though the decision has been framed as a budget-trimming matter, and said she has played a much more hands-on role in recent months.

"I relied on Wally to ensure that everything was going fine," Bean said. "But I can't take myself out of being at the top and, yes, the buck stops here."

Name changes for government agencies are often a sign of upheaval within. The county's Affordable Housing Office has worn three different tags in seven years, and strife has been its steady companion.

Kevin McConnell, director of what was then called the Department of Community Improvement, was demoted to the Water Department seven years ago as he struggled to deal with alcoholism.

Subordinates complained of abusive treatment, and said McConnell steered work to a nonprofit group run by the best man at his wedding. He was not found guilty of wrongdoing.

Successor Don Shea faced a more ignominious fate. Bean's predecessor, Dan Kleman, shipped him to Solid Waste Management after finding he falsified records as part of a federal review. He has since landed with the Tampa Housing Authority.

A top official under him, who openly questioned Shea's leadership, was herself accused of providing false information on her resume and misusing a county-issued cell phone and car.

And claims of mismanagement continued to dog Dexter Barge, who took over for Shea as director of what became the Housing and Community Code Enforcement Department. He's now back to supervising just code enforcement.

"While I was in there, that office had problems," said former County Commissioner Tom Scott, a current Tampa City Council member who sits on an affordable housing advisory committee for the county. "It has had issues over and over."

Before he left the commission nearly two years ago, Scott won support to create an affordable housing czar for the county. He wanted the person to report directly to Bean and operate free of the quagmire of what is now the Affordable Housing Office.

But when Bean hired Howie Carroll, a housing official from Clearwater who previously worked in Hillsborough County, she put him in charge of the agency. She would later make Wally Hill his supervisor.

"I just didn't think I had the time to devote to it," Bean said of supervising Carroll. "I also felt that that person was going to need to have resources and have some control over the housing fund, more so than if the person were just reporting to me."

Bean is devoting the time now. She has deployed three analysts to suggest management and process changes. The county's performance auditor also plans to make recommendations.

Investigators with Bean's professional responsibility office are looking into allegations of employee wrongdoing. Bean has asked for a criminal probe based on some of their findings.

In the meantime, Carroll's job is in limbo and he is likely to be demoted. Bean has placed animal services director Bill Armstrong in charge on an interim basis, the second time he has filled that role.

The staff is working long days and weekends to right the ship, he said.

"We've got a dedicated staff starting to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel," Armstrong said. "I'm optimistic and I'm confident we're going to get past this."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Housing office is one hard fix 06/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, June 22, 2008 11:09pm]
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