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Mayor Asks Housing Board To Step Down

Wednesday Deadline Set For Three Officials To Resign

November 4, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN And DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writers

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez fired the opening shot Friday in what promises to be another bruising political battle in the city, asking for resignations from board members at the embattled Hartford Housing Authority.

"I want to begin with a clean slate," Perez said. "There is a cloud over the housing authority, and the commissioners are part of that cloud. ... What we want to do is begin with a clean slate and the only way to do that is to have five new commissioners."

The authority was rocked in September by allegations of corruption brought by ousted Executive Director Lancelot Gordon Jr. Although Perez did not address the merits of the accusations themselves, he said the work of the board has nonetheless suffered.

"This is a public housing authority," Perez added. "Nobody should be taking this as personal."

But the three commissioners Perez notified Friday - Chairman Courtney Anderson, Vice Chairwoman Yolanda Castillo, and Treasurer Angel Arce - have said they have no plans to step down.

"Through the whole thing that's happening at the housing authority, this man has not called me to talk about anything," Castillo said. "All of the sudden he's got the time to call me and ask me to resign?"

"My term is not up until May of 2008, so I don't plan on resigning. I'm going to fight it if I have to. I have done nothing wrong," she said. "I'm a good person, I did a good job and I did the right thing."

Arce was equally adamant.

"I think we have done a damn good job at the housing authority, and there was no problem until we fired this guy," Arce said. "We were put there to do a job, to look out for the best interest of the housing authority, and we made a decision, and I believe we made the right decision, and we are being penalized for that? For doing what we were appointed to do?"

Anderson could not be reached Friday, but he has also said he had no intention of stepping aside.

Perez had yet to contact the board's two other commissioners, Winnifred Bennett and Mollie Shelton, whose terms have expired. But he said he was not planning to reappoint them. Perez declined to name any potential replacements.

In the letters he sent to Anderson, Castillo and Arce Friday, Perez said he's asking to remove the board members because of "inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office."

Specifically, he said the three failed to deal with issues raised in two audits performed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that identified an array of problems regarding the use of federal funds. He also noted that the authority's HUD rating had not improved.

In Anderson's case, Perez also said the commission chairman improperly had his personal cellphone paid for by the authority, to the tune of roughly $1,200.

Perez told the commissioners that they have until noon Wednesday to hand in their resignations. Should the commissioners choose not to resign, Perez can force them out but would have to conduct a hearing first. In that case, Perez would be the hearing officer.

The board has been under a cloud since terminating Gordon in August for what the panel said were nearly $11,000 in financial transactions in which Gordon did not follow agency policies. The board's decision was met with community opposition and led to calls from at least one organization for the board to be dismantled.

Gordon denied any wrongdoing, and in a federal lawsuit challenging his dismissal he said he was fired because he was trying to resist entrenched agency corruption. He named the authority and Anderson, Castillo and Arce as defendants, laying out accusations of bid rigging and favoritism.

In the lawsuit's wake, Perez ordered a probe, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena demanding records from the authority and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal launched an investigation of his own.

Gordon declined to comment on the mayor's call for the board to resign, but his attorney, Craig Dickinson, welcomed the move.

"Obviously we are pleased that the mayor is taking appropriate action, and unlike the people that he is taking action against, the mayor is acting in accordance with the law in terms of pursuing their removal," Dickinson said.

On top of Gordon's allegations, Anderson is facing questions about his role in the use of at least $3,000 in state emergency housing funds at the Blue Hills Civic Association - money that was used to pay his mortgage and that of a colleague. Until last month, Anderson was the association's chairman.

Perez said the problems outlined in his letters to the commissioners were just a small sample of the issues he's concerned about.

"I could put 300 things on there," Perez said, explaining that the commission is guilty of everything from putting a bad name to the authority to neglecting residents. "When I go to a meeting and there are people yelling about rats and roaches [in public housing,] those are things that have to be dealt with just as much."

But Castillo, who called Perez's charges against her "phony," said she wants a hearing - in public.

"I think Eddie has other agendas," she said. "He has an election next year."

"Lance is the one who did the wrongdoing here. Why isn't that talked about?" Castillo said. "He has to get some reason to try to get us out and make it look like it was something related to housing."

But Perez's decision met with community support Friday.

City council President John Bazzano said the mayor probably wanted to start "with a clean slate." Councilman Kenneth Kennedy Jr. said the latest development may be "best for all involved."

Clarke King, the head of the Greater Hartford African American Alliance, called Perez's move "a step in the right direction."

"They have to step away if charges or suits have been brought forth against them," King said. "It's hard to operate when you're being charged with something."

But Angela Shaw, who lives at one of the authority's most troubled housing developments, wondered if anything would really change.

What's going on at the authority now, she said, is the same thing that's been going on for years. She pays $404 a month for a two-bedroom apartment at Bowles Park. She has broken window screens and flying bugs in her house. The paint is peeling. The bathroom is getting moldy. She has cockroaches and mice as unwelcome house guests.

"It makes me angry," she said of the issues swirling around the authority. "Because these people get to go home to a clean home, I'm sure. They don't have paint chips everywhere. They don't have mice and they don't have cockroaches. And they don't have to worry about it. Somebody's not doing something right."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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