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More turmoil at St. Petersburg housing agency as future of CEO hangs in balance

At a recent Petersburg Housing Authority committee meeting, a board member called for a vote to fire or suspend CEO Tony Love. The motion was defeated 3-1 but board members said they wanted to see the results of a federal review of the agency before taking any action. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — Even with a new board in charge, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority remains in turmoil.

In the last two weeks, a board member called for a vote on whether to fire or suspend embattled CEO Tony Love. And the agency's attorney walked out of a meeting after facing a vote of no-confidence.

Neither measure passed, but even more evidence of the fractured relationship between the board and its CEO came when Love's personal attorney requested public records that would show whether board members are coordinating with St. Petersburg officials and each other outside of public meetings.

The records request filed by Love's personal attorney Marion Hale asks for copies of any communication between board members and with Mayor Rick Kriseman, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Tampa Bay Times.

Board members said the request is a clear sign that Love is preparing to sue the agency if it decides to fire him. The board recently hired an outside investigator to look into allegations of a hostile work environment "orchestrated" by the CEO that emerged during a federal review of Housing Authority operations.

"This is a setup for a lawsuit," board member Jerri Evans said at a recent meeting of the authority's legal committee.

Hale disputed that the request is hostile and said any citizen has the right to ask for records. She said the Housing Authority has yet to comply with the request.

The vote on whether to fire or suspend Love was called by C. Knox LaSister, who was appointed to the board in July. He said HUD officials had warned the board that the toxic work environment puts the agency at legal risk. And he described the public records request as confrontational.

"A line has been drawn in the sand," he said. "We're dealing with a CEO that is hostile to this board."

But he got no support from the other three board members that serve on the legal committee. Evans said it makes more sense to wait for the federal review to be completed before making a decision on Love's future. In addition to reporting concerns about the work environment, HUD officials also said they have concerns about how the agency is spending money.

HUD decided to conduct a review of the Housing Authority after it used agency funds to sue Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City of St. Petersburg when city council members voted to remove three board members for lax oversight.

The board members removed from office were staunch allies of Love, leading his supporters, including St. Petersburg NAACP Chapter President Maria Scruggs, to claim that Kriseman is seeking to get Love fired.

A judge dismissed the case. A separate lawsuit filed by the three board members is still ongoing.

Kriseman also declined to reappoint two other board members, meaning he has this year replaced five of the board's seven members. It came after a series of Times reports highlighted missteps by the agency, including allowing Love to stay rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families. That led to the agency being sanctioned by the federal government in March.

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

State law gives the city the authority to appoint and remove board members but the agency is autonomous, with board members responsible for oversight.

The vote of no-confidence in agency attorney Charley Harris of Trenam Law came after a heated discussion between him and a board committee about whether Love's newest employment contract is valid.

Former board chairman Delphinia Davis, one of the three removed from office, signed a contract in January that awarded Love a three-year employment term, a 5 percent pay raise and a monthly car allowance increase from $600 to $700.

But the three-year term provision was never voted on by the agency's board, leading new board members to question whether the contract is valid. The legality of the contract could affect how much severance pay the agency would owe Love if the board decides to fire him.

Board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens called for the no-confidence vote.

"We have at least gone a half year not knowing what contract our CEO is under," Owens said. "It is unacceptable for general counsel to allow the organization to be in that level of uncertainty for this amount of time."

Before board members could vote, Harris addressed the board

"I don't need this legal work," said Harris, who banged a desk as he spoke before walking out of the meeting. "I'm not doing it anymore. It's just not worth it."

The no-confidence vote was 2-2, meaning it failed to pass. Owens said she has since met with Harris and that he remains the agency's attorney.

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

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