ST. PETERSBURG — When St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love placed himself on medical leave this week without telling his boss, it was the final straw for the board.
At a specially called meeting Friday, board members voted 6-1 to terminate the troubled housing agency’s top executive. There was particular concern that he would be taking a second medical leave in less than two months as the agency is making emergency preparations to help residents prepare for Hurricane Dorian.
Board members stressed that their decision was based on other concerns about his leadership. The board indicated last week that it wants him to reimburse the agency after he used at least $5,600 in agency funds to pay his personal attorney for work that included negotiating for him with the agency’s legal counsel.
And his decision to use at least $27,000 in agency funds to sue Mayor Rick Kriseman led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to undertake an ongoing review of the agency and its spending. Federal officials reported to the board that employees at every level had reported a hostile work environment “orchestrated” by the CEO.
“You all are very much aware of a series of issues that fall into the category of a leadership crisis,” said Board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens. “We need to know we have someone who is willing to lead this agency.”
The board plans to fire Love for convenience as opposed to terminating him for cause. That provision in his contract entitles the CEO, who is paid $157,000 per year, to three months severance and a payment for unused sick and annual leave. Acting chief operating officer Lashunda Battle will serve as interim CEO, the board decided.
Owens told board members that Love had failed to return her calls and emails all week. He made just one appearance in the office this week, on Wednesday afternoon. Typically, a housing authority CEO and the leader of its governing board work closely together.
Love, was not present at the meeting. He did not return a call or text message seeking comment. His personal attorney, Marion Hale, declined to speak to a reporter.
The St. Petersburg Housing Authority provides housing and administers housing vouchers for about 4,000 low-income families. It handles more than $30 million in housing payments from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
After joining the agency in 2016, Love enjoyed strong support from board members who, in 2017, awarded him a 7 percent pay raise worth $10,000 per year. The following year he got a 5 percent pay raise and his car allowance was increased from $600 to $700 per month, both backdated to the beginning of the year.
But after a series of reports earlier this year by the Tampa Bay Times revealed lax oversight of the agency, Mayor Kriseman recommended the City Council remove three members and declined to reappoint two other board members.
Some board members voted on Love’s first pay raise without being told about employee reports that he bullied and shouted at staff.
Another story revealed that Love lived rent free for nine months in an apartment designated as housing for low-income families. That led to the agency being cited by federal officials.
Board members facing removal were among those who authorized the agency filing a lawsuit against Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg to try and halt the process. A judge quickly dismissed the case. A separate lawsuit filed individually by the three board members is ongoing.
Love’s removal comes as he was at last enjoying success financing the redevelopment of the Jordan Park housing complex. The Florida Housing Finance Corp. recently awarded the project tax credits worth an estimated $18 million.
Before taking the vote to fire Love, board members quizzed development consultants about whether his absence would delay the project. They were told that underwriters and investors were already well aware of the potential upheaval at the agency.
“They have indicated they like this project and the financial commitment is based on the project and not the staff,” said Marianne Edmonds, a senior managing director with the Public Resources Advisory Group.
NAACP St. Petersburg president Maria Scruggs, who has accused Kriseman of trying to fire Love by replacing the board, declined to comment Friday. In a social media post, she said that her group would support any federal or state investigation that names Kriseman or new board members for the “intentional disruption of the Jordan Park project."