The state Legislature wants the Pasco County Commission to have greater oversight over the local housing authority. So does Pasco County.
This week, the Florida Senate approved HB 975, a simple two-sentence bill that gives elected county commissioners responsibility for appointing the governing board running the Pasco Housing Authority. The bill, from Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. Peter Nehr, also passed the House unanimously. If the bill becomes law, it will replace the current process of gubernatorial appointees overseeing the housing authority. Gov. Rick Scott should sign the bill authorizing the transition.
The calls for increased accountability at the $15 million housing agency date to last summer when a whistle-blower's lawsuit alleged fraud, bribery and falsified time sheets for a married employee who had sexual relationship with the executive director. The director denied wrongdoing, but resigned after acknowledging the prior relationship with her subordinate.
Later, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audit found the authority did a poor job of readying apartments for new tenants, contributing to a waiting list of 2,300 people. And, Pasco County revealed inattentive management cost the authority as much as a $500,000 homeless grant because an employee filled out the application incorrectly.
That inspired the bill from Fasano and Nehr, which, unfortunately, did not incorporate changes suggested by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Citing untrustworthy audits, huge volumes of pass-through money, and a propensity for volunteer boards to be led astray by the professional staff, McCabe advocated statewide changes including having circuit court clerks verify housing authority audits. It is a reasonable measure worthy of legislative consideration that could help mitigate the historic mismanagement of local housing authorities.
Scott, at the urging of Pasco's legislators, recognized the need for greater accountability at the housing authority here and replaced long-serving board members — whose terms had expired — with four highly regarded community members. Their work rebuilding the public confidence in the agency continues, most notably with the hiring this week of a new executive director — the highly regarded Dianne Morris who formerly headed Pasco County's Community Development division.
To ensure the authority continues on the right track, Scott should sign HB 975 and give Pasco County the ability to extend the accountability. It won't necessarily mean immediate changes because Pasco commissioners, if they choose, can simply reappoint the current board members when their terms expire. But, making the authority answerable to elected officials working at the West Pasco Government Center rather than a governor living in Tallahassee is definitive local control that can bring a more immediate response if future problems arise.