‘It looks like a circus in here’ Board asks: Who should oversee the federally funded housing projects?

The deeply divided Hoboken Housing Authority board bickered, grandstanded and argued at a meeting Tuesday night, suggesting that their upcoming search for a new executive director could be particularly contentious.

The Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) oversees the city’s approximately 1,383 federally subsidized units of low-income housing, primarily located in the southwest part of the city. The HHA answers to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is not city-run, but the City Council, mayor and state appoint the seven commissioners.

While the selection of a new executive director is undoubtedly the biggest issue before the commissioners, there were other matters Tuesday that incited fierce arguments, such as the forced resignation of Commissioner Ruben Ramos Jr. and the HHA’s contract for legal services.

Washington leaving

Current HHA Executive Director E. Troy Washington’s upcoming vacancy was made official last week when, after weeks of speculation, Washington submitted his letter of resignation, which clears the way for him to take the executive director job at the Jersey City Housing Authority. The resignation is effective Jan. 16, 2004.

By a unanimous vote, the Jersey City Housing Authority approved pursuing the hiring of Washington recently, and Tuesday night Washington announced to the crowd that he has accepted the Jersey City position.

“It’s been up-and-down, but I feel that overall the residents [in Hoboken] have benefited,” said Washington Tuesday. “I will definitely miss you all.”

Washington came to Hoboken in 1998 to serve as the HHA’s comptroller and had no political ties. In 1999 Washington was appointed permanent executive director of the HHA. (See a sidebar for more discussion about Washington’s term in Hoboken).

Power struggle

Now that the search begins, it’s going to be a wild ride as there are two factions on the Hoboken Housing Authority’s board, both of whom have plenty of disdain for the other.

One faction is more aligned with City Hall than Troy Washington and believes that Washington should have worked better with City Hall to improve the HHA. The other faction, consisting of HHA residents on the board, supports Washington and thinks that City Hall should not meddle in Housing Authority business.

The pro-Washington faction consists of Housing Authority residents Arlette Braxton, Lynda Walker, and Vice-chair Jean Rodriguez. The other faction has tried multiple times to push Washington out. The group consists of HHA Chairman Angel Alicea, Ruben Ramos Jr. (who is also the City Council president) and Perry Belfiore.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Alicea about the feud that has developed. “When a husband and wife argue, it’s the kids who suffer the most. It’s the same thing here; when executive director and the board argue, it’s the residents that suffer.”

The wild card in the entire process will be Commissioner Jessica Andreula. In the past she has generally sided with the City Hall faction, but then Mayor David Roberts chose not to support her mother Rosanne in the November elections for the 3rd Ward City Council. While Roberts supported Roseanne Andreula in May, he moved his support to Vincent Addeo in the November’s special election. The big question is, will that affect Jessica Andreula’s stance on the HHA’s board?

As one source inside the HHA said anonymously Tuesday, “Right now, she holds the steering wheel.”

The process

In an interview Tuesday, Belfiore said a transition team should be formed immediately and the search should focus on local candidates.

“We’re looking at a very short turnaround,” said Belfiore. “We need to look for someone with no political affiliations that has a strong record in local housing authorities.”

He added that he has contacted at least two individuals who might be interested in the position, but added that he was only measuring interest and the conversations with prospects were “preliminary conversations” and not “interviews.”

Board attorney Spencer Miller of the Jersey City law firm Miller and Galdieri chided the commissioner last week.

“If you have already made contact with a candidate, you have made a big mistake,” said Miller, who has been at odds with the City Hall-supported faction numerous times in the past. “HUD will require a nationwide search, and will require that an executive panel [be named to undertake the search].”

Belfiore shot back, “In 30 days we have no administration.”

A classic debate in Hoboken politics has been how far outside the city to look for candidates for important positions in town. Some people believe that it’s important to cast a wide net to find the most qualified candidates, while others believe that good candidates must be local and understand city politics. But does that mean they have to be politically connected or related to current politicians?

One of Belfiore’s allies on the board, Alicea, said that he would support a national search but said that the search should focus on local candidates.

“The search should be a national one,” said Alicea. “But I would like [to keep the hire] local. Right now the residents are very suspicious of outsiders.”

Legal controversy

Miller’s status as board attorney has also been a subject of controversy over the past four months. On the agenda Tuesday night was a resolution to rehire Miller and Galdieri for a one-year contract.

On or before August 29, a number of law firms submitted bids for the HHA legal contract. Subsequently, the members of the City Hall-supported faction questioned the policy that was used to send out the requests for proposals (RFP). The procurement point system, which was developed by Washington, gave 60 percent of the total points for local Housing Authority experience. The critics argue that 60 percent of local experience is too high of a percentage of the total points and gives Miller and Galdieri an unfair advantage over a firm that might submit a lower bid. In fact, there were several firms that bid lower than Miller and Galdieri.

Several commissioners also questioned Washington’s connection to Miller, and pointed to the fact that Miller wrote a letter of recommendation for Washington when he applied for an Asbury Park Housing Authority position. In the past, Washington has also advocated hiring Miller and Galdieri when there was controversy over the legal contract. Miller and Galdieri is also the current legal firm representing the Jersey City Housing Authority, the entity that Washington will be joining in January.

HUD sent a strongly worded letter recently that the policy and the bids were valid.

“The board cannot retroactively alter the procurement policy in order to circumvent any existing RFP procedures,” read a letter from Edward DePaula, acting director of the New Jersey branch of HUD. “In summary, we are advising you that the board must be advised that they need to move forward on the pending RFPs and not attempt to amend the Hoboken Housing Authority’s procurement policy retroactively.”

Commissioner Braxton said that the letter was clear and vote needed to be taken Tuesday.

“HUD has clearly said that the policy meets its guidelines, and has told us that we have to move forward,” said Braxton.

Then an argument among attorney Miller and commissioners Walker and Belfiore ensued. Belfiore insisted that the matter be tabled until the new executive director could review the firms.

“Let’s table this and wait until the new guy comes in,” Belfiore said. Walker responded sternly that HUD gave a directive and it should be followed.

“You are always contradicting what HUD says,” said Walker.

Miller added that, “The selection of a new executive director is a process that could take three to four months. HUD will not tolerate any more delays.”

Belfiore would say later that he does not believe that Miller should be involved in the conversation over a contract for which he is one of the bidders. During the meeting, he said, “I would rather stumble around in the dark than take your advice [on this issue].”

As tempers flared, Braxton declared that any semblance of professionalism had left the room.

“It looks like a circus in here,” said Braxton.

After the heated discussion, a vote of 3-3 with Andreula abstaining was taken. The vote fell along political lines. A tie vote means that the resolution did not pass, and the contract was not approved. The attorneys can still serve the board on holdover status until a new contract is given.

Ramos resigns; Campos appointed

One of the large salvos launched Tuesday by the pro-Washington faction was the announcement by Washington that he has contacted the Department of Community affairs to question the status of Commissioner Ramos.

“I do have one thing to note,” Washington addressed the board and the audience. “The DCA has indicated to me that Commissioner Ramos has not completed two courses that are required [to remain commissioner]. Therefore, as of today, Ramos is considered to have resigned his position.”

Once appointed, a commissioner has one year to complete a number a classes. Ramos’ deadline was mid-November. He admitted Tuesday that he had not completed two classes, but said he has been registered since September. He also said he had previously contacted DCA and was told that since he was registered, he was allowed to remain sitting.

Against advice of counsel, Ramos said that he would remain sitting, and would vote on the matters before the board Tuesday.

However, said attorney Miller, “If a vote results in a 4-3 vote, then that vote is in jeopardy.”

Wednesday afternoon Ramos, after consulting legal advice, concluded that he was temporarily disqualified until he completes his course, and submitted his resignation.

It has happened several times over the years that City Hall-allied commissioners failed to complete the required courses on time. At Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, the council by unanimous vote appointed Councilman Christopher Campos, a political ally of Ramos and Mayor David Roberts, to the position.

Since the vote on the controversial legal contract was a 3-3 tie with one abstention, if Ramos was ineligible, Miller and Galdieri could have a legal basis to file litigation to compel the board to award them the contract, or revote the issue.


Washington; love him or hate him

Public opinion of E. Troy Washington’s performance as Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) executive director was particularly polarized over the last four years. His supporters said Washington was a strong leader who moved the HHA ahead but was the victim of shameless politically motivated attacks. His detractors said that he did not move quickly enough to improve conditions in the projects.

Despite a large amount of criticism, the Housing Authority has made strides in several areas since Washington was hired as the full-time executive director. In 1998, when Washington was hired as the HHA comptroller by a new executive director, the Housing Authority was in disarray on different levels.

Earlier that year, the HHA had been placed on a list of troubled housing authorities following an audit by HUD. The previous executive director had left over a bitter dispute with the former board over his contract, and one commissioner was charged by the federal government with official misconduct. There were 11 outstanding cases of litigation against the Housing Authority, some as old of seven years, that were in limbo with no action being taken.

Problems by the previous administration spurred HUD’s troubled agency recovery center based in Cleveland, Ohio to assign a full-time staffer in Hoboken to review and oversee operations and all contracts.

After the audit, there was a complete upheaval in the HHA leadership, with the hiring of a new executive director and the appointment of six new commissioners. Washington was hired as comptroller and was charged with the responsibility of helping to clean up the problems of the past.

Steven Porath, the deputy director of the Cleveland office, called the previous HHA administration “simply incompetent” and added that they had not used millions of dollars in grant money that had been given for six consecutive years.

Washington helped successfully fix the problem and cleared the way for the HHA to utilize approximately $7 million dollars for new fixtures, roofs, painting and lead abatement. The HHA was then taken off the troubled housing authority list.

Anthony Pasquale, who was the chairman of the HHA when Washington was hired as the permanent executive director, said recently that Washington’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by rhetoric coming from an antagonistic City Hall.

“When he was hired, [the HHA] was in terrible shape,” said Pasquale. “Money was not being spent and there was tons of work that needed to be done. [Washington] had a vision and was dedicated to doing the right thing and making the lives of the residents better.”

He added that he admits that Washington was a strong personality who was not afraid to make decisions even if those decisions were unpopular to some. But given the state of the authority when he took over, said Pasquale, major changes were needed.

But just as many people criticize Washington’s management style. His strong and authoritative style led many to believe that he had his own agenda and had a passion for acting unilaterally.

“He had a management style admired by many and not by a lot,” said HHA Board member Perry Belfiore. “He was autocratic manager who never really saw the benefit of checks and balances.”

There was also criticism that Washington rarely returned phone calls, especially when those phone calls came from people associated with City Hall. Fourth Ward Councilman Christopher Campos said Wednesday that he hopes Washington’s leaving can close the fissure that has grown between the Housing Authority and City Hall.

“Mr. Washington never saw the benefit of having an open line of communication between the Housing Authority and City Hall,” said Campos recently. “Instead of collaborating on programs, he was always standoffish, to the detriment of the residents.” – Tom Jennemann


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group