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Days before they may be removed from office, housing agency board members set to approve $22 million redevelopment project

The bungalows of Jordan Park sit empty behind a gate put up to enclose the properties. The St. Petersburg Housing Authority board is set to vote on a $22 million contract to renovate part of Jordan Park and build a new mid-rise apartment complex with 60 units. The meeting will be held one week before City Council votes on whether to remove three board members. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published May 5

ST. PETERSBURG — If Mayor Rick Kriseman has his way, three St. Petersburg Housing Authority board members will be removed from office by May 16 for what he describes as "misconduct" and "neglect of duty."

But in what may be their last act on the board, the three are still likely to vote on a critical $22 million contract for the redevelopment of Jordan Park.

Housing agency leaders have scheduled a special board meeting on Tuesday to approve a construction contract with Fort Myers builder Brooks and Freund to renovate 203 apartments and build a new mid-rise apartment tower. The haste is necessary, officials said, to get documents signed and completed for an application to a state agency that awards tax credits that can be sold to pay for construction.

But critics are questioning if the meeting was scheduled just to get the deal approved while CEO Tony Love still has majority support on the Housing Authority board.

Chairman Harry Harvey and board members Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White — the three Kriseman is asking the City Council to remove — have been staunch supporters of Love, who has faced calls for his resignation from community leaders such as School Board chairwoman Renee Flowers. The agency's next regularly scheduled meeting is not until May 23, when there may be a less supportive board.

Flowers said Friday that the agency should wait until new board members are in place since they will be the ones who oversee spending on the project.

"Those people will be responsibly financially for whatever package they put together," Flowers said. "I don't see what the expediency would be to move on something right now. Twenty-two million is a lot of money."

The housing agency's seven-member board already includes two rookie members recently appointed by Kriseman after he declined to reappoint board members Basha P. Jordan Jr., and Jo Ann Nesbitt to second terms. A workshop to explain the project and its complex financing to board members is scheduled for Tuesday morning ahead of the 1:15 p.m. board meeting.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders, a community advocate who is running for City Council, said that is not enough time for board members to do their own research before such a critical vote.

"They want this to pass – they know there will be a great possibility it won't if they wait until the next board meeting," she said.

Jeffrey Butt, an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs who is working on the deal for the Housing Authority, said in an email that the agency wants to get its credit underwriting review completed in time to be submitted to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation for its June board meeting.

Housing Authority spokeswoman Michelle Ligon said the timing of the meeting has nothing to do with the possible removal of board members. The community needs housing for low-income families and Jordan Park will help provide that, she said.

"Whether they're removed or not, this project needs to go through," Ligon said. "There's nothing surreptitious; it's not pedal to the metal."

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: ST. PETERSBURG HOUSING AUTHORITY

St. Petersburg housing agency board approved pay raise for CEO without reviewing his evaluation

St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO lived rent-free in low-income housing — while earning $140,000 salary

Rick Kriseman to replace two agency board members as city seeks greater oversight of Housing Authority

Consultant got $3,600 to teach St. Pete housing CEO to be nicer, stop screaming at staff

Mayor Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg Housing Authority on legal collision course

Jordan Park has become the key project for Love, who came under fire last year for his handling of the relocation of some of its residents, including seniors and disabled people from the only remaining original section of the complex known as the Historic Village. Flowers was among those who questioned why residents were forced out when the housing agency was a long way from securing financing to pay for its redevelopment.

Doubts about the agency's handling of the project also led City Council members last May to reject a request for a letter to show the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the city may provide financial support for the Jordan Park plans, estimated to cost about $43 million. The dislocation of residents, a lack of transparency and the poor condition of housing were among the concerns council members cited.

Kriseman said his decision to ask council members to remove Harvey, Davis, and Sherman White is based on a review of the housing board's performance compiled by city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch. It was conducted after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found the board approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love in 2017 even though some members complained that they hadn't seen his evaluation.

The $10,000 pay jump, which increased Love's annual salary to $150,000 in 2017, was awarded despite written reports from senior staffers that Love routinely shouted and belittled staff, and was responsible for the agency losing key employees. Board members who served on the agency's personnel committee were concerned enough to insist that Love work with a consultant to improve his management style and demeanor. The consultant charged $3,650.

But neither Harvey nor Davis, who served on that housing authority committee, disclosed any of those details to their fellow board members when the full board voted on Love's raise in November 2017. The board was asked to vote without a copy of his evaluation being provided.

The Times also found that in 2016, Love lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families and used agency funds to pay for his furniture and electric bills. The CEO was earning $140,000 per year at the time. The agency was then cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing low-income housing.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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