Bradenton Housing Authority prepared to negotiate with new executive director

BRADENTON -- Ellis Mitchell, assistant executive director with the Queen Anne's County Housing Authority in Maryland, is the Bradenton Housing Authority Board's leading candidate to become executive director of the troubled agency.

Mitchell emerged as the top pick Monday after interviews with five candidates. The board will now begin negotiating with Mitchell.

If an agreement cannot be reached, BHA Board members say they are prepared to negotiate with one of two other finalists: No. 2-ranked Bennett Washington from Vicksburg, Miss., or Darcy Branch, acting BHA director.

Teresa Pope from New Smyrna Beach, and Richard Yerington, who interviewed well but said he wasn't sure he was looking for a long-term position after recently retiring from Muscatine Municipal Housing Authority in Iowa, were eliminated from consideration Monday.

BHA Board Chairman Napoleon Mills said the primary goal is to find a candidate "with the highest levels of ethics" to restore public trust.

Mitchell landed that point in his interview by noting his experience working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General, which is investigating former BHA Executive Director Wenston DeSue for alleged financial mismanagement. No charges have been filed in the case.

Mitchell said what has happened with the BHA "is not dissimilar to what happens in other agencies." The difference he said, is the severity of what occurred during DeSue's tenure.

"Your name has made it all the way to Washington, D.C.," Mitchell said.

Mitchell sided with board opinion against Branch, who reported DeSue's activities to HUD and not to the board. Mitchell said he had never heard of a housing authority employee going to HUD before the board of commissioners.

Branch, for the first time, said during her interview she isn't sure if she handled it the right way.

"I may not have made the right decision in how I handled it, but it was (DeSue's) decision to mismanage the housing authority," she said. "Since I've been acting executive director, I've balanced the budget and brought transparency to the housing authority."

Perhaps a little too much transparency, said Commissioner Lois Gerber, a vocal critic who claims Branch runs to the media when she doesn't get her way.

"It's that manipulative kind of thing that concerns me," said Gerber. "I don't want this commission doing business through the press. Disagreements and misunderstandings should be done within the framework of this board."

Branch made the top three, however, based on Gerber's vote as well as a vote from Commissioner Rigo Rivera. Mills and Commissioner Norma Dunwoody did not include Branch in their top three picks. Commissioner Charlie Grace was absent.

Washington, from Mississippi, said he brings a lot of positives that would make the city and residents proud, including the "integrity to do what's best for the community."

Washington and Mitchell cited concerns with the BHA being top heavy in salary.

"You are headed for trouble by 2015," said Washington, based on his review of agency budgets for the past two years. "Your property maintenance budget is only $32,000. That's a small amount to say you are going to stay on top of your properties."

Staff shakeup possible?

Mitchell and Washington also acknowledged they have had to fire staff in order to bring an agency's budget into line, but have never done so without presenting the reasons to a board of commissioners and receiving approval.

Mitchell said BHA administrative costs outweigh operational costs, which should not be the case. He said all staff needs to be reviewed "because everyone is labeled as being a manager here and are getting manager salaries. Not everyone here is necessarily a manager and administrative costs are just too high."

Reorganizing staff with different titles and duties, as well as making employees understand they are a reflection of the agency in how they treat the residents and interact with the public, are his priorities during the first month, he said.

"Working internally to standardize procedures is one way to establish public trust again," Mitchell said. "Another way is to go out into the public and do presentations so the public has a better understanding of what we do."

Branch said she feels fortunate to make the top three, and the board appears to have done its due diligence through the interview process. If she ends up working for Mitchell or Washington, Branch, the BHA financial director before DeSue left, said she is confident she could work with either in helping the agency move forward.

"I had always planned to go back to my financial director position if I wasn't hired as executive director," she said.

The board scheduled a special meeting for 9 a.m. Oct. 14 to review background and reference checks. In the interim, a compensation package will be put together to offer Mitchell, whose public housing background is extensive but does not include a stint anywhere as executive director.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.