BRADENTON -- The chairman of the Bradenton Housing Authority said Wednesday the authority's board was blindsided by the ongoing federal investigation, with few checks and balances in place and poor lines of communication.
Saying he welcomes more communications with other agencies, local and federal, Chairman Napoleon Mills said he takes responsibility for not being proactive in reaching out for advice and help.
"I realized we had issues when HUD came in," Mills said after a Bradenton City Council meeting. "That's when I found out about the problems and realized we had undoubtedly missed something."
His comments came as City Councilman Gene Gallo questioned the city's responsibilities for the troubled housing authority whose executive director, Wenston DeSue Jr. and Stephany West, DeSue's girlfriend and the BHA projects manager, were fired and accused of mismanaging agency funds and taking time off together when they should have been working.
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"I'm upset ... at the board for being inefficient or not being as aware of what was going on," Gallo said.
If the board was aware of DeSue's mismanagement, Gallo added, "that's not the board we want representing our community."
If the board didn't know, that also is disturbing, he added.
The BHA is an independent agency. The only official tie between the BHA and City Hall is the mayor appoints the authority's governing board.
Still, Gallo said BHA's woes make the city look bad, even though City Hall has no control over funding or management of the housing authority. The federal investigation, conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is ongoing.
Council members generally agreed the city should offer technical assistance to the housing authority -- for example, helping with the search for a new executive director. But there were some differences over how responsible the BHA Board is for problems uncovered by investigators.
Mills said he rushed to Wednesday's meeting once he heard City Council would address issues facing the housing authority. Mills did not address council members at the meeting, nor did they ask him any questions. Still, Mills said he wanted to make sure they knew he was interested in the discussion and open to better communications.
Mills did say the public comment portion of the city council meeting prompted him to ask for that at housing authority meetings, which have not included public comment in the past. Reached Wednesday night, Darcy Branch, interim executive director for the housing authority, said she has added a public comment period to next week's agenda.
Council member Harold Byrd Jr. took a conciliatory approach with the authority Wednesday, imploring his colleagues to allow the city staff to help the BHA move forward.
Byrd, who said he met Monday with Mills, said the city could help with a salary study of BHA employees or with the search for a permanent executive director.
"We have a responsibility to do what we can to assist them correct all their problems," Byrd said.
Branch said she has talked to a private company about doing a salary study specifically for the Bradenton Housing Authority based on job responsibilities. The study, which would cost $1,800, is expected to take 60 days.
Branch blamed past communications problems on DeSue, saying city officials have been responsive to all of her questions and City Clerk Carl Callahan provided her with its employee handbook to help her revamp BHA employee policies.
"I wasn't in the executive director position before," Branch said, "so I'm not sure where the stop sign on communications came from. I have had wonderful communications and the city has been helpful."
Mayor Wayne Poston said the BHA Board should not be held responsible for all agency problems. He cast the bulk of the blame at DeSue, who Poston said was unresponsive when board members asked for financial information about the BHA.
"They were swindled as much as we all were," Poston said.
Poston also pointed a finger at HUD, saying the federal agency has made it "very, very difficult" to address long-term solutions for the housing authority. When officials asked HUD what it would take to merge the BHA with the Manatee County or other housing authority, the mayor noted, HUD couldn't provide information about which of its offices in Florida has oversight over the BHA.
Poston said he has the authority to appoint two more members to the five-member BHA Board to add expertise to the authority's management. He asked council members to suggest possible appointees.
The council did not take a formal vote on providing assistance to the BHA, but they indicated they want Mills and his board to know the city is ready to help.
"Since the city of Bradenton has a track record of fixing things quite well ... maybe we can be of assistance to the citizens who are victims of this," said Councilman Patrick Roff.
Mills welcomed the discussion.
"I want the resources," Mills said. "I think they can provide the resources, they must be there. Any input I can receive helps me make decisions."
Mills, who admits he put too much trust in DeSue, said he also hopes the BHA Board is open to more extensive communications with leaders and citizens. "The leadership we've had, we're finding, hasn't been open," Mills said.