In a dramatic turnaround to shed scandalous past practices, the Bradenton Housing Authority adopted sweeping personnel policy changes Thursday to eliminate generous perks and institute tough austerity. The authority is dipping into reserves this year to wipe out a $300,000 deficit incurred under the ousted former executive director.
The elimination of unprecedented employee benefits should help restore the public's trust in an agency under a cloud since a federal investigation burst into the news with a September raid on BHA headquarters.
While the authority's board of directors earned sharp criticism for past practices and lax oversight, this deep cutback in the perks policy amplifies the panel's commitment to improving the authority.
Last month, the board opened lines of communication by initiating public comment periods at meetings -- a sign of transparency painfully absent in the past.
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Before being fired as the agency's head, Wenston DeSue ran a tight ship that manipulated the board and closed the doors during commission meetings. He'd hide details about policies from board members, gaining approval through resolutions. Even Darcy Branch, the BHA's finance director under DeSue and now the interim executive director, was shut out of board meetings.
It was Branch who composed the about-face on policies after studying Bradenton and Manatee County personnel manuals. Some of her proposals are tougher than Bradenton policies.
BHA attendance and absence policies were tightened; take-home car and fuel card use restricted, and discretionary bonuses erased. Vacation and sick hour accumulations and vacation accruals were decreased. Cashing out sick time was eliminated.
Retiring employees will no longer get to keep their agency vehicle or receive $10,000 in lieu of the car. Nobody took advantage of that policy, a fairly recent addition under DeSue.
A policy recommending employees use flex time in lieu of overtime pay should be vetted to ensure compliance with labor law.
The now-defunct policies allowed DeSue to cash a $17,000 bonus check plus receive between $7,127 and $28,510 last year in cashing out sick time before he was axed -- an outrage for a public agency whose mission centers around helping the poor with housing, not enriching staff at taxpayer expense.
The BHA's dire situation came into sharp focus nationally when Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley went on C-SPAN to berate the failings of both the local agency and its federal overseer. Late in January, Grassley described the BHA as one of the "most egregious examples of how ineffective the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been at policing local house authorities."
Since HUD spends $4 billion in federal money annually to help the poor with housing, that smack-down is well deserved. Grassley cited other examples of high-rolling local housing authorities, too, including Tampa's.
The Bradenton Housing Authority, however, now appears on track for long overdue reform.
In other action Thursday, the board discussed the pros and cons of making Branch the permanent executive director and forgo a national search because of the cost.
Chairman Napoleon Mills brought up a key point -- that a search will send a signal to the community that the board is practicing due diligence in order to gain public trust. The two most recent searches ended with hiring directors with links to the agency and ignoring recommendations.
A national search might well prove Branch to be the best candidate. She has certainly demonstrated her desire to improve the authority with her work on the new policies.
But we agree with Mills that a commitment to due diligence is a vital step to building public confidence and shaking its years-long poor reputation.