State legislators are correct to push for greater accountability for the Pasco Housing Authority, an independent agency overseen by a volunteer board of gubernatorial appointees. The authority owns and operates a dozen low-income housing complexes across the county and also provides federal vouchers for tenants to obtain housing from private landlords.
Its management under executive director Karen Turner is now under scrutiny because of accusations in a February whistle-blower lawsuit that alleged fraud, bribery and falsified time sheets for a married employee with whom Turner had a sexual relationship. Turner, reading a prepared statement Tuesday at an emergency board meeting, acknowledged the romance (terminated several years ago) with former employee Pat Driscoll and labeled him a threatening abuser, though she never documented her concerns with authorities. The rest of the lawsuit's allegations are unfounded, board members said.
The denials, however, aren't satisfactory to Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. John Legg, both of whom are seeking greater oversight of the agency. Legg called on Gov. Rick Scott to appoint new board members since two positions are vacant and the remaining three seats are filled by commissioners whose terms have expired. That might simply bring new blood to an old problem: a board with little accountability. Fasano offered a preferable plan to file legislation giving Pasco County government the authority to appoint the board members. Such a move would make the elected county commissioners responsible to the public for the housing agency's management.
Accountability is clearly missing from a governor who can't be bothered to make routine appointments; from an executive director who showed poor judgment in dating a subordinate and later soliciting employee letters of support to try to mitigate the whistle-blower's concerns; and from the housing authority's board, which inexplicably and irrationally portrayed this episode as a turf battle with Pasco County.
For instance, Realtor Len Trubia, a 12-year board member who supported promoting Turner to the top job a decade ago, said she was favored over other applicants with partisan ties.
"I didn't want a politician running the housing authority," said Trubia, who twice ran for political office. "We didn't want somebody coming in here with political ambitions. Or somebody appointed by the county. You don't want that attachment.''
We disagree. The housing authority needs that attachment for its credibility. And fears from authority chairwoman Regina Mirabella that Pasco oversight would mean shuttering low-income apartment complexes in favor of an emphasis on affordable, single-family homes are unfounded. Displacing low-income elderly, disabled and single parents from the authority's 524 apartments is unrealistic.
More important, county oversight would forge a partnership between the authority and the Pasco County Community Development Division to improve the housing conditions for some of the county's poorest residents. It is a relationship that has been strained since the authority rejected a $250,000 interest-free loan, which did not have to be repaid, because the county required a mortgage agreement in the event the complex was sold. The money had been earmarked for air conditioning repairs at the Hudson Hills complex. Likewise, board members criticized the county for not sharing federal stimulus money under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The county said the authority didn't apply.
Making the housing authority answerable to Pasco County commissioners should help end that poor communication, bolster efficiency and, most important, curtail the opportunities for ex-employees to allege fraud and mismanagement.