City Housing Authority managing ‘transition’

By RICHARD MORRISROE

Public entities and the Fourth Estate — the press — have a long history. Our First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights an independent press, to act as a vanguard against government overreach and corruption.

I understand why the press has a healthy skepticism when it comes to government in New York and its cities. New York provides a colorful history of government corruption and mishaps. But sometimes, the press — vying for readers in the era of screens and social media like Facebook — reaches. Newspapers, after all, are mostly for-profit businesses in our American capitalist system. Sell papers or close up shop.

Contrary to what you may have read in the OBSERVER’s editorials about the Dunkirk Housing Authority, there is no chaos. Simply put, the DHA is in transition. Otherwise, as a highly regulated, publicly funded landlord, it still operates. Tenants for the most part live in peace. Like any landlord, DHA has to deal with maintenance issues, repairs, and issues tenants raise, interpersonal conflicts.

What happened is the DHA was led by the same executive director for over two decades. She retired. A new executive director was hired roughly 18 months ago. It didn’t work out. The DHA and her have parted ways. Within days, the prior attorney for the last 13 years resigned. Simultaneously, a part-time employee misappropriated some funds, but returned them the following day, and was disciplined.

For over a month, the DHA was without an executive director, and without legal counsel. It has a volunteer board of seven members, five who are appointed by the mayor and two commissioners appointed by their fellow tenants, mostly retirees, that get a $30 per month stipend, $40 for the board chair and treasurer. They, by design, have no formal housing authority management training, and they don’t play housing authority administrator, not even on TV. Like board members of most nonprofits, agencies and commissions, they are not staff. They are fiduciaries. It is not their job to be administrators. Some mistakes were bound to occur.

The June 17 special meeting that the OBSERVER called illegal was illegal only because the DHA did not provide the proper notifications to the press and to the public. The meeting was called by the board and the executive director via an e-mail on June 12 to go over the negotiated union contract for its 10 employees. Usually, the administrator calls the meetings, and does the necessary notifications under New York’s Open Meetings Law that all public entity meetings must follow. That did not happen.

Next there has been insinuation that all this occurred at the hands of city government, who by state Public Housing Law, has only two touchpoints with the DHA: A) the mayor appoints board members; and B) the Common Council approves employee contracts and salaries. The DHA is a separate legal entity. The board are volunteer fiduciaries who set policy and procedure. The staff runs day-to-day operations. HUD provides most of its funding and regulatory oversight. Neither the city’s mayor nor its Common Council control any of that.

The Dunkirk Housing Authority is moving forward. It retained my law firm after the director termination and attorney resignation. The DHA and its union have negotiated a new contract, subject to DHA board and Common Council approval. The DHA has hired a new executive director, who subject to contract negotiations and approvals, hopes to start in September. The part-time employee who mishandled funds has submitted her resignation letter. Simply put, the sky is not falling.

Richard Morrisroe is the Dunkirk Housing Authority attorney.

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