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  1. St. Petersburg

Mayor Rick Kriseman, St. Pete Housing Authority on legal collision course

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority board is warning that it will sue the city if Mayor Kriseman follows through on his plan to remove three board members who he said have failed to adequately oversee the agency.
Published Apr. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — A legal skirmish between City Hall and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority looks increasingly likely on Monday after Mayor Rick Kriseman formally started the process of removing three of the agency's board members for what he deemed "misconduct" and "neglect of duty."

The mayor's office sent letters to Housing Authority board chair Harry Harvey and board members Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White informing them of his decision to remove them. It includes a report detailing a set of "six charges" made by the city against the three, such as allowing the agency's CEO to live in an apartment designated for low-income families and failing to follow Florida's Government in the Sunshine law. Harvey and Davis also failed to disclose complaints made by senior staff about bullying by CEO Tony Love when they recommended his annual pay raise, the report states.

The final decision on the fate of those board members will be made by City Council members at a May 16 meeting. The letter states the trio can contest Kriseman's recommendation either in writing before the meeting, or in person at it.

"After you review the detailed charges against you … I hope you will reconsider the option of submitting in writing your resignation to the City Clerk before the hearing on May 16, 2019," the mayor's letter states.

• • •

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: ST. PETERSBURG HOUSING AUTHORITY

St. Petersburg housing agency board approved pay raise for CEO without reviewing his evaluation

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

Rick Kriseman to replace two agency board members as city seeks greater oversight of Housing Authority

Mayor removes three St. Petersburg housing agency board members for lax oversight

Consultant got $3,600 to teach St. Pete housing CEO to be nicer, stop screaming at staff

St. Petersburg housing agency accuses Mayor Rick Kriseman of interference, threatens lawsuit

• • •

But a court fight may be the more likely outcome. The housing agency's board — including the three facing removal — recently authorized their attorney to sue the city if Kriseman follows through with removing sitting board members. Maria Scruggs, the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, has indicated that her group may also sue the city. She said the NAACP will issue a statement addressing Kriseman's actions on May 1.

The mayor said his decision is based on a review of the housing board's performance conducted by city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch. It started after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found the board approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love in 2017 — granted even though some members complained that they hadn't seen his evaluation.

The $10,000 pay jump, which increased Love's annual salary to $150,000 in 2017, was awarded despite written reports from senior staffers that Love routinely shouted and belittled staff, and was responsible for the agency losing key employees. Board members who served on the agency's personnel committee were concerned enough to insist that Love work with a consultant to improve his management style and demeanor. The consultant charged $3,650.

Love has acknowledged that he screamed at staff and, on one occasion, ordered staff to do work for an event organized by his fraternity.

But neither Harvey nor Davis, who served on that housing authority committee, disclosed any of those details to their fellow board members when the full board voted on Love's raise in November 2017, the report found. The board was asked to vote without a copy of his evaluation. Neither Harvey nor Davis returned calls for comment from the 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. The CEO was earning $140,000 per year at the time.

Love's initial contract required the agency pay "reasonable rent" for six months. But instead of renting a private apartment and seeking reimbursement, he moved into Saratoga Apartments, an income-restricted complex. Love was still there in August when the board retroactively voted to extend his free accommodation benefit for another three months.

The agency was then cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing low-income housing. By allowing Love to stay in the apartment for nine months, the city report states, Harvey and Davis "failed to properly exercise their duty of oversight" and violated agency bylaw that states no commissioner shall "permit the unauthorized use of Authority-owned property."

The city's case to remove Sherman White includes repeated absences from meetings. She was appointed by Kriseman in 2017 but missed five meetings in 2018 and was late twice. She also could not be reached for comment.

City officials also cited an April 10 emergency meeting as proof that the agency violated Florida's open-government laws. The only public notice of the meeting was made to board members via an email sent by Love at 7:14 p.m. the night before it took place. State law says "reasonable notice" must be made to the public before such meetings are held, and that they must be open to the public.

The city's report said the meeting was conducted with just three of the board's seven members in attendance — an insufficient number to establish the quorum required by state law for the board to vote. Yet those three voted to authorize the housing authority to take legal action against the city if it tried to remove board members. That vote was taken again at a regular board meeting at the insistence of agency attorney Charley Harris.

If St. Petersburg's City Council approves Kriseman's decision, he will have replaced five of the seven board members in little more than two months. He cited similar concerns about oversight in March when he chose not to reappoint Basha P. Jordan Jr., and Jo Ann Nesbitt to second terms.

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

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

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