BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority’s commissioners are scheduled to consider a three-year employment contract this week for its interim executive director that calls for a nearly $122,000 annual salary.
The contract was drawn up before the board has even had an opportunity to conduct a national search for an executive director, and in the midst of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation into the beleaguered housing authority and its former executive director.
Darcy Branch, the former finance director and current interim executive director, had the authority’s attorney draw up the three-year employment contract for the board’s consideration at its meeting Thursday. The contract includes Branch’s proposed salary and a start date of Nov. 21.
The Housing Authority’s agenda lists a resolution for an employment contract for Branch, who has served as the interim executive director since September when former director Wenston DeSue was fired because of an ongoing investigation by the federal Housing and Urban Development.
Attached to the agenda is a resolution for the commissioners to approve Branch’s employment and a contract. But housing authority attorney Ric Gillmore insists that the contract is a draft and is intended to “spark conversation” on what the board wants to do regarding finding a new executive director. The employment dates are defined from Nov. 21, 2013 to Nov. 20, 2016.
“Regardless of what it says, it’s a draft,” Gillmore said, saying nothing has been negotiated. He said that the employment contract was not for Branch and was completed as a sample.
But a copy of the contract, specifically for Branch with complete details and terms of her position as executive director, is included in supporting documents with the board’s agenda for Thursday.
Branch’s cover letter on her contract states: “It is with great pleasure that I am submitting to you my employment contract.”
The agenda doesn’t indicate that the authority would be discussing in general what should be the next steps, and no supporting documents are provided advising the authority of its options.
The item is up for discussion at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the authority’s main office, 2002 9th Ave. E.
“If the board wants to discuss that Thursday, I would provide any input I can give them,” Gillmore said.
Branch asked the Bradenton Herald to hold the story on her employment contract until after a decision was made Thursday.
“I just don’t want you to write about something that might not come to fruition,” Branch said, adding that the plan is likely to have the board discuss the contract and vote on it during the January meeting. Meeting minutes from October and September do not indicate the board’s desire regarding Branch’s contract or an executive director search.
When asked if it would be best to let taxpayers know and allow them to comment on the proposal, Branch said there wouldn’t be public comment on her contract, although she acknowledged later that the public could comment on the contract during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Gillmore said the board isn’t required to have a hearing on the hiring of a new executive director.
Yet the contract requires a public hearing should the board decide to fire Branch with cause at any point after the contract is signed. She also has to be notified of the termination within 30 days.
Branch also wrote to the board that “the employment contract was sent to me from Atty Ric Gilmore. He informed me that it was a standard contract, and I filled in the blanks with the information as it relates to the HACB and myself.”
Nowhere in her note to the commissioners does it indicate that the contract should be interpreted in any way other than at face value. Branch said if people want to know about the contract, they can come to the housing authority office and request an agenda and supporting documents. A bulletin board of notices is on display at the Housing Authority, but it’s behind a locked door not visible from the lobby.
The uncertainty on what the board will be doing at the meeting echoes complaints of former board members. On more than one occasion, according to former board members, the authority would bring them resolutions or items without any explanation ahead of the meeting, and the board would have little input on what appeared on the agenda.
Branch is asking for a three-year contract with a salary of $121,680, merit raises and cost-of-living adjustments, according to the draft contract. Branch made $115,898 as finance director for fiscal year ended March 31, 2013.
That proposed salary for Branch is $50,000 less than what former executive director Wenston DeSue made.
“It’s not really set in stone yet,” Branch said.
Neither Gillmore nor Branch had an explanation for why that amount is in the draft contract or what the amount is based on.
The salary does not fall in line with other housing authority salaries of its size.
Bradenton Housing Authority has 247 public housing units, with 125 of them included in Bradenton Villages. A HUD audit in 2010 found that housing authority directors across the country who oversee fewer than 250 HUD units made a median salary of $42,092, while salaries in Region 4 that include Florida had a median of $44,901.
The median salary in the 75th percentile was $61,394 in the region, according to HUD. If the Bradenton Housing Authority wanted to justify that the salary should be in the 250 to 1,249 HUD unit group, the median salary for Region 4 was $77,158 — still significantly less than the top employees’ salaries at the Bradenton Housing Authority.
Manatee County Housing Authority Executive Director Rob Rodgers, an employee of more than 34 years, makes $160,000 and does not receive a bonus. His housing authority oversees 80 HUD units plus 70 low-incoming housing units that do not receive HUD funding.
Sarasota Housing Authority Executive Director Bill Russell, a former deputy assistant secretary of public housing, makes $162,000 with bonuses. His housing authority oversees 1,850 units and has a $16 million operating budget. He started with a $140,000 salary in 2005.
The draft contract includes a stipulation to adjusting the executive director’s salary in the time of a “documented financial crises.” Branch was not sure how that would be handled with the housing authority’s deficit.
Each of the commissioners received a handbook at the October meeting to help them learn their jobs as board members. The book, “The Handbook for Commissioners by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials,” spells out how to hire and fire an executive director, and warns that if HUD policies are not followed, the board could be liable for employment conditions beyond two years.
Branch said the board requested to “start the process” for its next executive director.
According to board minutes in both the October and September meetings, there is no documentation of the board discussing directing staff or the attorney to create a contract for Branch. The minutes do not document any direction the housing authority should take for finding its next executive director. The authority performed a national search to replace William DeSue in 2005 and ended with the board selecting his son Wenston DeSue, who has since been fired during the investigation by HUD.
In 2010, HUD audited the top salaries of each housing authority to investigate how much each executive director was making, and found loopholes in a Congressional bonus cap allowing for excessive pay through bonuses. The Congressional cap on salaries for executive directors of housing authorities is $155,000 from federal funds, said Jerry Brown, a spokesman for HUD.
HUD wants to impose its own cap, but is still collecting information before that is enacted, Brown said.
When the authority hires a new director, it will have to comply with salary limitations.
Currently, the salary cap only applies to the amount that HUD provides to the position, and each housing authority is allowed to contribute more local funding for a higher salary, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD.
“It doesn’t preclude a housing authority finding local resources to exceed those limitations that we put in place,” Sullivan said. “It only prevents the amount that HUD contributes.” Branch wasn’t able to answer how much federal and local money would go toward the new executive director’s salary. Because a city’s housing authority is appointed by its mayor, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston has the authority to impose a local salary cap, and also has the power to fire commissioners, Brown said.
“Your housing authority is run by your local folks there,” Brown said.
Poston said he “had no idea” if he wanted to put a salary cap on the executive director of the housing authority. “We’ll see what happens on that,” Poston said. “I’ve not really been too much involved with the housing authority other than appointing the board.”
In a previous interview with the Herald, Poston said the Housing Authority reports to HUD in Miami, but HUD officials said the only thing HUD oversees is its own federal dollars. Brown stressed that the local housing authorities, like Bradenton’s, have a great deal of local control through its mayor to address situations that may arise.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.