ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love was in his job 18 months when board members decided to ask staffers how they felt about their boss as part of his first evaluation.
A half-dozen senior employees, including the chief operating officer and head of asset management, completed the anonymous questionnaire. Many of their answers raised serious questions about his leadership.
Love often yelled at staff, was “bullish” and on one occasion ordered three employees to spend more than three hours making ‘‘goody bags” for his upcoming fraternity golf event, according to one questionnaire obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
“Subordinate staff has broken down in tears, feel they work in an environment of undue intimidation and their future with the agency is dismal,” another stated.
But the board that oversees the mostly government-funded agency approved a 7.1 percent pay raise for Love in November 2017 without reviewing his evaluation or the questionnaires.
“We haven’t actually seen his review, so how are we going to vote on that?” board member Jo Ann Nesbitt asked during the meeting.
Nesbitt and others were told that the evaluation could be requested from human resources. Then all of them, including Nesbitt, supported the raise, bumping Love’s annual salary by $10,000 to $150,000, documents show.
The pay hike was backdated to the beginning of the year, and the CEO was also rewarded with fringe benefits added to his contract beginning in 2018.
Nesbitt and board chairwoman Delphinia Davis didn’t return calls for comment. Board member Harry Harvey declined to comment, saying only Davis is authorized to speak for the board.
Love, 63, told the Times he was unaware that his human resources director had asked staffers to provide feedback about his performance. He said he could not recall during his evaluation meeting with the personnel committee if the employee questionnaires were discussed.
When asked about employees’ comments about his management, he said he has a loud voice that may have been mistaken for shouting.
“We did things in a very aggressive way to accomplish our goals and those goals were accomplished and whatever comments were made to the personnel committee I did not have knowledge of,” he said. “Perceptions of my voice is misleading.”
This isn’t the first time the Housing Authority has come under fire for a lack of transparency.
Earlier this month, it told board member Terri Lipsey Scott she would have to pay up to $900 for copies of records she wanted to review. The agency reversed that decision after City Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes offered to pay the cost.
Love’s pay increase also raises questions about whether the Housing Authority is following Florida’s public records laws.
Audio recordings are routinely made of Housing Authority meetings. But the agency was only able to provide a four-minute recording of the June 2017 personnel committee meeting held about two weeks after the employee questionnaires were completed. The short audio shows that members of the committee, which includes board members Harvey and Davis, agreed to turn off the recorder when the CEO’s evaluation came up.
Love said it’s part of an established process used for the evaluation of previous CEOs to turn off the audio recording.
Under Florida law, meetings can be closed in a so-called executive session for discussion of issues like pending litigation or negotiations with unions. But the law does not provide the same exemption for personnel matters like a CEO evaluation.
Records show that the meeting lasted 80 minutes but contain just the following description: “The committee discussed the CEO’s evaluation.”
Also, when asked for copies of the questionnaires that staffers completed about Love, the agency said they couldn’t be found.
Under state law, personnel records must be retained for up to 50 years after the end of employment.
“If the records were subject to retention and they can’t find them, they have violated the law,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit group that advocates for freedom of information.
The Housing Authority did provide the Times a copy of Love’s evaluation it said was completed by the personnel committee. The five-page document lists goals that Love accomplished in his first year, including the purchase of Jordan Park, which the agency is seeking to redevelop, and Wallysburg Apartments, which is intended to provide affordable housing. It also credits him with reaching an agreement for St. Petersburg to forgive a $3.1 million loan that was used to demolish deteriorating Jordan Park apartments in 2000.
The evaluation does not incorporate comments made by his employees or list their concerns.
The seven commissioners who make up the Housing Authority’s governing board are selected by the St. Petersburg mayor and approved by the City Council. But the agency is otherwise autonomous and board members, who serve on a voluntary basis, provide the only oversight.
“The lack of oversight and transparency is astounding, especially considering council asked many of these members tough questions before their appointment and they committed to fulfilling that role,” said City Council member Amy Foster. “I for one do not plan on reconfirming any member who has allowed this on their watch.”
Board members followed up Love’s 2017 pay rise with a 5 percent rise the following year and increased his monthly car allowance from $600 to $700 per month, both backdated to the beginning of 2018. They also recommended he and top staff get a slice of any development fees from the construction of new public housing. That idea was later scrapped.
Two staff questionnaires obtained by the Times reveal a strained workplace.
Love used terms like “baby and sweetheart” when addressing some female employees, one questionnaire states. A common complaint was that Love shouted at staffers and failed to listen to employees, even those with experience.
“He raises his voice, belittles senior staff and termination is on the table with each and every interaction you engage in with him,” wrote one employee.
Rachel Gelbmann, who was let go about 12 days before the end of her three-month probationary period in November, said there was an uncomfortable work atmosphere when Love was in the office.
“He seems generally disrespectful to women and most of the senior office staff are women,” she said. “I’ve seen him shout at people multiple times a day usually.”
Gelbmann said she was fired because she made several complaints about Love to the human resources department.
One of those was after he ordered her to change the minutes of a meeting that had already been posted on the agency’s website. He wanted them to reflect that the board had voted to appoint Nesbitt to a committee. After she and other staff listened to the recording of the meeting, she refused to make the change.
“We listened to it again and again,” she said. “We were of the opinion that the minutes shouldn’t be altered.”
Love said he did not recall that and it would have been unnecessary since the board chairman could authorize a committee assignment without a vote. He said he never made negative comments to his staff about their talent.
“People have their opinions,” he said. “Change is hard for some people. Some people like to stay in their comfort zone.”
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.