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Scandals prompt new policies at Pasco Housing Authority

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Housing Authority officials this week approved new rules for employees, prompted by last fall's scandal that overhauled the agency and forced the executive director to resign.

Housing authority board members on Tuesday gave initial approval to a "nonfraternization" policy that prohibits romantic relationships between managers and their subordinates. Also included in a new employee manual are formal guidelines on how employees can seek whistle-blower protections if they have a concern about the agency.

Had they been in place last fall, both policies would have been a factor in the lawsuit and media attention that consumed the agency.

Last year, former finance director Maggie Taffs filed a lawsuit against the agency, claiming whistle-blower status and arguing the housing authority was rife with mismanagement. She even accused then-executive director Karen Turner of having sex with a subordinate at the office. Turner resigned in September as media coverage of the lawsuit intensified.

As the scandal grew, Gov. Rick Scott also installed a new board of directors and federal housing officials conducted a thorough review of the agency. Their report has not yet been released.

The new guidelines prohibit the executive director, along with other managers, from dating or entering into a romantic relationship with employees under their supervision. The person could be fired or transferred if a violation is uncovered. The guidelines add to an existing policy that discourages employees from getting involved in tenants' private lives.

"You hate to limit somebody's romance opportunities," said board member Ed Blommel. "Then again, having employees dating our customers, which are our tenants, may not be the best thing either."

He added: "I hope (the housing authority) never runs into that again."

Housing authority lawyer Shelly Johnson said the whistle-blower provision is similar to those found in many other employment policies. She said it describes how concerns must first be reported to managers and that employees must make a good-faith effort to ensure the complaint is accurate.

Said Blommel: "We don't want to discourage any whistle-blowing."

Board members on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to those changes, along with other issues such as travel reimbursement. A final draft of the employee manual will be considered at a meeting next month.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

In other news, the Pasco Housing Authority board:

• Approved a 2012 budget that includes a 5 percent merit raise to all employees, though board members have not yet decided whether raises will be awarded. Board chairman David Lambert has said one of his goals is to boost salaries to attract qualified employees.

Some maintenance staffers, he noted, make just a little more than $10 an hour. "When you can go to McDonald's and make more money, you're not going to get somebody that has a skilled trade," he said. Board members will likely make a final decision about the raises once a permanent executive director is hired. Officials plan to winnow a list of 20 candidates to a short list at a workshop later this month.

• Pasco's Community Development director George Romagnoli said the county plans to respond to a bid to handle the housing authority's grant writing. He said the housing agency has missed opportunities for some grants that his staff could help secure. "I think we can do it a lot cheaper and more efficiently," he said.

Scandals prompt new policies at Pasco Housing Authority 01/11/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 8:28pm]
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