Bradenton Housing Authority board should be transparent to public about scandal

November 26, 2013 

The Bradenton Housing Authority is a public entity, not a private enterprise. Under investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the BHA has come under withering fire for mismanagement, nepotism and excessive compensation and benefit packages.

The issue came to a head in September when federal agents raided authority offices, confiscated records and seized employee files.

Five days later, the BHA board of directors fired Wenston DeSue, then executive director, and Stephany West, the authority's special project manager and DeSue's girlfriend.

To date, the board has dodged the press and the public. As commissioners charged with oversight of a $3.9 million operation funded by taxpayer monies, they owe this community an explanation about their leadership and decision-making.

The panel canceled its November meeting, ostensibly because of a lack of a quorum.

But the same day the cancellation announcement came out last week, in his ongoing investigative reporting on the BHA, Herald business writer Charles Schelle reported that a proposed three-year contract for interim BHA director Darcy Branch was on the November agenda -- a contract that called for a $121,680 annual salary.

The fired director's pay -- excluding generous benefits and bonuses -- had soared to $171,060 with the board's approval. Both of those salary figures far exceed the national norm for housing authorities the size of the BHA.

Was it just coincidence, then, that the board ducked discussing the contract by canceling the meeting?

According to HUD, since the Bradenton Housing Authority serves fewer than 250 residential units, the executive director's annual pay should be set between $74,628 and $88,349.

In 2013, the federal agency clamped down on bonuses after discovering housing authorities abused the system. In March, however, the BHA board approved a $16,200 bonus for DeSue -- more than triple the previous maximum set in policy, $5,000.

The median compensation package, including bonuses and salary, for the best-paid housing authority employees working for agencies with fewer than 250 federal public housing units in an eight-state region that includes Florida stands at $47,898, HUD figures show.

How can BHA commissioners explain -- much less justify -- the extreme disparity in agency compensation and national and regional standards?

The board has much more to answer for, too, including how the authority's financial outlook became so bleak the agency could fall into receivership.

BHA commissioners are appointed by Bradenton's mayor and confirmed by the city council, and both bear some responsbility for holding the board accountable. but that has been lacking and must be rectified.

Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston now says he wants to merge the BHA with the Manatee County Housing Authority, but state law must be changed and clarified to allow such consolidations -- a process that could take more than a year.

If the current board continues to avoid a public response, the mayor and city council should demand an audience and an open discussion.

Otherwise, Poston should consider exercising his power to replace commissioners. Transparency has been denied for too long.

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