True to his cantankerous nature, suspended St. Petersburg Housing Authority executive director Edward White Jr. has hired an attorney, filed a lawsuit and denounced his critics as unaware. Of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administrators who have sanctioned him and the authority, White told a reporter: "Had they had prior discussions of these issues, they would have reached quite different conclusions."
In other words, they are fools.
Maybe White is being singled out unfairly for financial and administrative problems at the authority; maybe a reinvigorated HUD is using him to send a message to other authorities; maybe he didn't have time to rebut the charges when his board met Jan. 30 to consider the HUD sanctions and his tenure. But, at the very least, what this intelligent man has done is jeopardize his agency to prove a personal point about bureaucracy. HUD sanctions don't come easily or by surprise, and no good administrator would ever have let it get this far. It's hard to see how an administrator who cares about the tenants of public housing would risk losing the federal money that provides them homes.
The task for the Housing Authority is to move ahead, and to restore the confidence of both HUD and the public. Authority board members can begin that work with the financial questions. Does the authority have adequate reserve money? Does the board have adequate controls on the expenditure of money? (Allowing staff directors to write $50,000 checks without board approval is irresponsible.) Is the authority meeting its own local housing objectives as well as the mandates from HUD?
Too many people have looked the other way for too many years, and that is part of what permanently ails the Housing Authority. Leaving aside ques-
tions of financial management, public housing in St. Petersburg has never had the kind of government support that it needs. The mayor appoints members to the board, but, after that, City Hall leaves it largely alone. Over the years, in fact, the authority often has had to fight the City Council to try to get help with new projects; and too many times, the authority has lost.
In this hour of need, the authority could use both professional and moral support from city government. Mayor David Fischer ought to see that the authority gets it. The mission of providing low-cost housing is vital to any urban area, and it can't succeed without full political support.
On the authority board, members need to be looking toward the future, and that means toward a new director. If the authority is going to resolve the questions of financial management and the violations of HUD procedure, it will have to hire a permanent qualified director.
White may be a good man, and certainly no one has shown any evidence of malfeasance, but he clearly has lost the faith of the board and the public. Though he may deserve his day in court, the Housing Authority needs to get back to business. The 3,000 poor and elderly households that look to the agency for help can't afford to wait.