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  1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg Housing Authority needs makeover

CHRIS URSO | Times St. Petersburg Housing Authority commissioner Ann Sherman White, right, speaks with commissioner Dr. Delphinia Davis during a board meeting in February. They are two of the three board members Mayor Rick Kriseman has moved to oust for failing to properly oversee the agency.
Published May 6

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority has been operating as a private fiefdom and needs a thorough housecleaning. Mayor Rick Kriseman is appropriately exercising his clear authority by moving to oust three board members for their obvious failure to provide proper oversight, and those board members should not vote on a $22 million contract in a special meeting set for today in advance of their removal. The Housing Authority needs a new board, a new chief executive and a new commitment to responsible, professional and transparent leadership.

Simply put, the Housing Authority is a mess. As the Tampa Bay Times' Christopher O'Donnell has reported, the issues began piling up as soon as CEO Tony Love arrived in 2016. Love lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families and used agency money to pay for furnishings and the electric bill. That revelation led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to cite the Housing Authority this spring for violating federal rules by condoning such an arrangement for an apartment that should have been available for a low-income family. Regardless of federal rules, no one charged with providing housing for St. Petersburg's poorest residents should have thought this was a good idea.

The poor judgment does not stop there. In 2017, the Housing Authority paid $3,650 for a consultant to coach Love on his management style. Love acknowledged he screamed at staffers, and the consultant advised him to stop criticizing employees in front of their colleagues and to stop making friends with owners of private firms that do business with the Housing Authority. Perhaps the consultant should refund his fee. This spring, another top employee at the Housing Authority filed a complaint and accused Love of bullying and intimidating her.

Despite the obvious warning signs about Love, the Housing Authority board failed to hold him accountable. It actually gave him a 7 percent raise in 2017 even though some board members complained they had not seen his evaluation. Kriseman points out in his list of charges that the written "evaluation'' of Love for 2016-17 consists of a pair of documents that list the tasks completed by the housing authority during that period -- documents that were created by Love. By any definition, that is not an independent evaluation.

The Housing Authority also has a blatant disregard for public records and open meetings. The agency released only a four-minute audio recording of a June 2017 meeting of the personnel committee before the audio was turned off. There is no exemption in state law that allows such public meetings to be held in secret for a CEO evaluation. Records show the meeting actually lasted 80 minutes, but there appears to be no clear record of what was said.

What should have been the final straw was the Housing Authority's emergency meeting on April 10 that was held without the public notice required by the state's open government laws. The city's report notes only three of the seven board members were present, which was not enough for the quorum required by state law for formal action to be taken. Yet the three members voted to authorize the Housing Authority to take legal action against the city if it removes the board members. That vote was taken again at a regular board meeting at the behest of the agency's attorney, but the sense of entitlement is astounding.

Today's special meeting reconfirms that the Housing Authority's arrogance knows no limits. It was clearly scheduled to approve a big contract tied to the redevelopment of Jordan Park before the three board members are removed and Love is presumably forced out. The City Council has expressed legitimate concerns about the redevelopment plans, and those plans should not move forward with a lame duck Housing Authority.

The mayor's charges against Housing Authority board members Harry Harvey, Delphina Davis and Ann Sherman White are comprehensive and convincing. If they don't resign, the City Council should uphold Kriseman's decision to remove them at next week's hearing.

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