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It's time to take action on Housing Authority

Published Dec. 8, 2006

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said more than two weeks ago it intended to send a letter to the Brooksville Housing Authority instructing that executive director Betty Trent should be suspended without pay.

The letter has not been received, and Trent, who was indicted by a federal grand jury Nov. 6, along with project manager Joe Ann Bennett on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and stealing $40,650, continues to draw vacation pay while the authority seeks the gumption to act.

Now there has been an allegation filed with the State Attorney's Office that the Housing Authority board has held meetings that were not adequately advertised to the public, or even all its members.

How long will federal and state officials allow this deplorable situation to fester before taking action that restores the public's confidence in an agency that is responsible for providing shelter to hundreds of below-poverty-level residents of the city?

Other than acquiescing to the Hernando County Housing Authority to take over management of the long-troubled agency, there has been no indication that the city Housing Authority has been anything but indifferent to these very serious charges.

Evidence of that lack of interest came to light in a Times story Wednesday by staff writer Dan Dewitt. In that report, the board's vice chairman, Allen Rhodes, acknowledged that the board met to discuss Trent's indictment and employment status without adequately notifying the public, as required by the state Sunshine Law. Rhodes excused the board's secret meeting as an "emergency, executive meeting" dealing with a personnel matter. His misinterpretation of the Sunshine Law is one more example of how the Housing Authority thumbs its nose at the public, including prior refusals to provide this newspaper with agendas of the board's business meetings.

The law requires that any public agency give reasonable notice to anyone who might be affected by its actions. That clearly did not occur in this case, which raises the question of whether it demonstrates a pattern of doing business in secret. Given the Housing Authority's history, which includes at least four years of documented spending irregularities and the misuse of federal money, such a supposition is not without merit. The recent indictments give credibility to that speculation.

It is inexcusable that HUD has been so slow to intervene, but the Brooksville Housing Authority does not need to wait for Big Brother to tell it that Trent should not be allowed to take a paid vacation while she awaits trial on theft charges. If residents were privy to the board's discussions about these matters, perhaps they would reach the same conclusion.

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