BRADENTON -- The process to find a new executive director for the troubled Bradenton Housing Authority has not been smooth with one restart to the process, a threatened lawsuit, applicants with troubled histories and multiple complaints from applicants not chosen who are crying foul.
Ellis Mitchell Jr. topped a field of more than 140 candidates, and will start work Nov. 3.
Board Chair Napoleon Mills said after interviewing Mitchell that he feels comfortable with the board's final choice.
"Talking to him face to face, what I gathered from him is he knows the importance of the work that has to be done with us," said Mills. "With his background with (Department of Housing and Urban Development) it seems as if he has a very good understanding of where we are and where we need to be and how to get there."
Mitchell takes over an agency that has been clouded by scandal after federal agents raided BHA offices in September 2013 as part of an investigation of alleged financial mismanagement. Former director Wenston DeSue was fired, but no charges have been filed in the case.
Even though this will be Mitchell's first stint as an executive director, he has held high level positions at housing authorities, in particular as a compliance manager with the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority, overseeing 22 employees and 10,000 residents and investigating HUD compliance issues. He said the BHA's problems and intense scrutiny made the job even more appealing.
"My background is compliance," said Mitchell. "I have worked in agencies where I had to go in and do investigative work so this agency kind of lines up with what I like to do. It's a strong suit for me to work with HUD on
Mills said that was a key factor in the board's decision, but they also liked the way Mitchell balanced his understanding of HUD rules with a sincere desire to help BHA residents.
"What stuck out for me was his desire to do everything possible to help people who need housing, but his unwillingness to bend the rules to make that happen," said Mills. "In talking with him, I felt he believed that. I think he will be truthful but fair with us and the residents in getting the funding and care they need."
The BHA board took a lot of criticism for being a rubber stamp for DeSue's financial activities that led to a loss of $500,000 in DeSue's last two years alone.
"It's a thin line," Mills said. "We don't want to micromanage, but we want to be kept up to date and understand what is going on with the agency, what we need to do and whether it's something we need to meet about. We want to know where we are going, who's out there interested in what we are doing and how we get from one end to the other."
Mills said that includes if there is bad news to report, which DeSue allegedly hid from the board or outright misled them about.
"If there is negative information out there, we need to know that so we can work that out," Mills said. "If he goes anywhere and says, 'I work for the Bradenton Housing Authority,' to me, I want him to be proud of that and want people in Bradenton to know that we are doing the best we can and if we have to fight for it, then so be it."
Mitchell said what happened to the BHA board isn't unusual.
"They are volunteers and meet once a month," said Mitchell. "Like most boards, it needs to be more knowledgeable, but it's up to the executive director and the agency's attorney to make sure the board is versed in what the agency is supposed to do."
Mitchell said he plans to not only better educate the board, but two of his primary goals are to educate the public on what the BHA does and establish a better relationship with the city of Bradenton, Manatee County and other agencies. He said those relationships are vital to the work ahead.
Mitchell said another priority will be to develop a better format of documenting expenditures and to ensure all of those transactions are laid out in a way the board can fully comprehend.
"I think what they've received under the former executive director is probably skeletal," said Mitchell. "It's vital that they have all the information they need and just because I may develop a good relationship with a vendor and have the authority to sign a check, doesn't mean I shouldn't make sure all of the supporting documentation is in place to inform the board."
While Mitchell has yet to start the job, he reiterated his concern from his interview about administrative salaries at the BHA, calling them one of his "biggest concerns."
Mitchell said there are too many "manager" titles at the BHA that aren't necessary managerial positions and probably do not justify a manager's salary.
"Salaries are really out of line," he said. "One of the first things I will do is to conduct a staff assessment and see where we are with that, but until I can get in there to do that, I can't really speak on that right now, but based on my experience, it doesn't add up to what you would normally see in a housing authority."
In the meantime, residents wait to see if the focus finally shift back to them, but none who were contacted by the Bradenton Herald cared to comment on the current transition of leadership.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.