Bradenton Housing Authority on prudent path to recover from scandal

January 14, 2014 

Branch

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The Bradenton Housing Authority board is taking appropriate and prudent initial steps in the drive to recover from a financial scandal and ongoing federal investigation. Suffering a loss of public trust in the board's stewardship of the agency, Chairman Napoleon Mills announced new efforts at improving communication while reaching out for the city's assistance in solving problems uncovered in the probe.

In describing the board as blindsided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation, Mills also admitted there were few checks and balances -- in effect, a lack of oversight over agency operations that allowed two fired executives to profit handsomely.

Also to his credit, Mills accepted responsibility for failing to seek advice and assistance soon after HUD's September raid on the authority headquarters. Furthermore, he requested a public comment period be added to board meetings, which interim BHA director Darcy Branch inserted into the agenda.

The public -- especially tenants who lease authority properties -- should have a voice in BHA business and raise questions and concerns that are clearly heard.

Under former executive director Wenston DeSue Jr., little communication existed. That kept the board in the dark about operations and policies, and the panel failed to assert its authority over the agency.

Both DeSue and Stephany West, DeSue's girlfriend and BHA projects manager, benefited with oversized salaries. Both were fired and accused of mismanaging agency funds and skipping work for personal pursuits but billing the authority for those hours away.

City assistance important

While the housing authority is indeed an independent agency, with Bradenton's mayor responsible for appointing board members, the city owes constituents more than a hands-off approach. The city also assigns a council member to be a liaison with the board, though that relationship has been spotty.

But the City Council appears poised to offer technical assistance to the housing authority. Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. made a strong case for this aid, stating: "We have a responsibility to do what we can to assist them correct all their problems." Branch has already indicated that city officials are indeed being responsive to questions, a solid sign about cooperation.

While conducting a search for a new executive director, the agency also wants to hire consultants to conduct a salary survey specifically for the BHA. As has already been publicized, authority pay for top staff exceeds regional averages for agencies of similar size -- shamelessly so.

Mills admits to placing his trust in DeSue, even though communications to the board were incredibly poor. Now the chairman hopes the housing authority board establishes strong communications with the community. That's vital.

Transparency will be the key to restoring public trust and building the housing authority into a model of honesty, integrity and accountability.

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