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Judges dismiss lawsuit filed by St. Pete housing agency board members removed from office

Three-judge panel dismisses claims by former St. Petersburg Housing Authority board members that they were denied due process.

ST. PETERSBURG — A panel of judges has ruled that the city of St. Petersburg followed the law when officials removed three housing agency board members from office in 2019.

In a ruling released last week, the three circuit court judges said the city met due process standards when City Council members backed Mayor Rick Kriseman’s recommendation to remove the three former St. Petersburg Housing Authority board members for lax oversight of the agency. Judges also dismissed claims that the city had not provided the board members — Harry Harvey, Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman-White — with sufficient notice about the special hearing when council members approved the sanction.

None of the three, nor their attorneys, attended the May 2019 hearing where they were removed. One month later, they sued the city, asking to be reinstated and claiming they had no opportunity to defend themselves because the city failed to inform them about the hearing. Their lawsuit also claimed that their removal was a “pretext,” so Kriseman could appoint commissioners who would carry out his agenda to fire then agency Chief Executive Officer Tony Love.

Related: Three St. Petersburg Housing Authority board members removed for neglect, misconduct

The judges’ six-page order highlights that the hearing was publicly noticed, and its date was published in the Tampa Bay Times. Copies of documents detailing six counts of misconduct or neglect of duty were sent to the housing agency and to the official email addresses of the former board members. The ruling did not address the merits of the city’s case for removal.

Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew said he hopes the decision marks the end of the controversy.

“These former commissioners refused to participate in the process and then tried to bootstrap that refusal into a claim that the process was somehow unfair,” Pettigrew said. “The court refused to accept that.”

The former board members, who served on a voluntary basis, can request a rehearing from the three-judge panel or take their case to appellate court. Ross Nabatoff, the Washington, D.C. attorney representing the former board members, could not be reached for comment.

Harvey, who was board chairman when he was removed, declined to comment. Davis and Sherman-White did not return calls seeking comment.

Kriseman ordered a review of the agency board’s performance after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found it approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love in 2017, even though his staff reported that he bullied and belittled them. Some board members also complained that they were asked to vote even though they hadn’t seen his evaluation.

St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love speaks during an August 2018 meeting. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love speaks during an August 2018 meeting. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

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. At the time, he was earning $140,000 per year.

Love said his stay in a low-income apartment was in lieu of his contract’s relocation package, which required the agency to pay his rent for six months. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t agree and cited the agency for misuse of low-income housing.

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

Love was fired Aug. 30 after board members said he placed himself on medical leave without notifying his boss, board chairwoman Stephanie Owens.

It came after federal officials conducting a review of the agency said employees at every level had reported a hostile work environment “orchestrated” by the CEO. That review later unearthed eight violations of federal regulations under Love’s leadership, including “serious lapses” in how the agency handled contracts.

Related: St. Pete housing agency overpaid on contracts, violated federal regulations, review finds

Love sued the Housing Authority in federal court in December, claiming his firing violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act. His lawsuit is seeking about $434,000 in unpaid salary, unused leave and medical and legal expenses. The case is ongoing.