Since the summer, the executive director, who oversees the city's federally funded low-income housing projects, has been perpetually a half-step away from dismissal. But for one reason or another, the axe never seems to fall. Last month, the seven-member HHA Board of Commissioners that oversees Washington voted on a resolution to replace him when his contract expires this May 31. But only four commissioners were able to vote since three were unable to attend the meeting. And since only three of the four voted yes, there were not enough votes to remove Washington.
There was a new meeting this past Wednesday, and there was every indication that the board would vote to terminate Washington, who has been chastised by members of the public and politicians for being inaccessible. But it seemed that the commissioners' stance and the public's stance changed nearly overnight.
Wednesday night, with more than 100 residents looking on, HHA chairman Michael Stefano opted not to take action regarding Washington's contract renewal.
Stefano was not the only one who seemed to soften his stance on the director.
HHA residents like Lynda Walker, who had previously been very critical of Washington, urged the board Wednesday night not to hand him his pink slip this spring. Previously, Walker had said that hearing the news that Washington would be relieved of his duties would be "better news than finding out that they had a cure for the common cold."
But Wednesday, she stood up in front of the board during the public comment period of the meeting and said, "We have had a lot of problems with Mr. Washington. But that's because politicians are constantly ducking their noses into HHA business. Now that Mr. Washington does not want to do what they want him to, they want to get rid of him."
Get the politicians out
Walker's sentiments were echoed and amplified by others. Mary Ann Camparelli, a resident of Fox Hill Gardens apartments, where the meeting was being held, had typed out a two-page plea to the board asking them to retain Washington, which she read in a choked up voice.
Michael Lenz, a town activist (and formerly-declared mayoral candidate; ) who has questioned the executive director at meetings in the past, pointed to an audit of the HHA recently performed by Standard & Poor's, a Manhattan-based financial services firm. While the audit indicates that conditions have improved at the HHA in recent years, it also rates the project's outlook as "negative" due in large part to the uncertainty surrounding Washington.
"That is very troubling to me," said Lenz. "We must build stability."
But perhaps it was Wilfred McLean, an HHA resident and activist, who best captured the mood of the night. Echoing comments that Washington made to the Reporter last week, McLean asked the politicians who had come to participate in the meeting not to mix their ambitions in with HHA business.
"I notice all these politicians and newspaper people here tonight," he said in a booming voice. "But this concerns the people who live here! This is not a platform for anything!"
In years past, the problems of the projects were rarely publicly addressed by politicians, and yet, the residents there generally voted to maintain the status quo. Two years ago, 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos, Jr. made the conditions at the HHA a cornerstone of his campaign. At the same time, a new board of commissioners there was actively encouraging more residents to come to Housing Authority meetings. These factors increased the visibility of the HHA, and since then, more residents - as well as political candidates and officials - have been coming to meetings.
Washington, who took the reins of the HHA two years ago, has tried as hard as possible to steer clear of the choppy seas of Hoboken politics - not an easy thing to do in this contentious town. Until two weeks ago, he declined to comment on his likely dismissal. But two weeks ago, he finally told the Reporter that he felt some of the criticism against him was leveled by politicians to increase their political standing.
As the speakers delivered their remarks, Washington often just sat and smiled and then quietly thanked them. After the meeting, he said that he was thrilled, and surprised, to have received the support.
"I'm astonished," he said the next day. "I'm also very uplifted. Its great that people seem to be realizing that this is our Housing Authority and it is up to us to work together to make changes and continue to make improvements."
Some of the more outspoken residents who have joined Walker in prodding the administration of Mayor Anthony Russo to oppose Washington seemed to be a little surprised by the change of tone.
"When did you make a change of heart?" Lillie Dortch, an outspoken HHA resident, asked Walker as the meeting was breaking up.
Walker explained that she hadn't really.
"The thing is that the mayor will just put in someone worse if [Washington] does leave," she said. "Given the right atmosphere, Mr. Washington can do a pretty good job."
But after the meeting, the mayor said that Walker's comments and those of Lenz were political ploys to try and make the mayor look bad as elections approach. Nellie Moyeno, who is an HHA commissioner, city councilwoman and ally of Russo, said the same.
Both Lenz and Walker are allies of City Councilman Dave Roberts, who is challenging the mayor for the keys to City Hall.
"Walker and Lenz are politically motivated," said the mayor as he stood outside the room where the meeting had taken place. "All of a sudden these people who were asking for his head are now saying that he is the greatest thing since apple pie. I guess a person has the right to change his mind. But their motives here seem to be very political." Moyeno called the reversal "hypocritical."
Walker said after the meeting, "I don't agree with the way they are getting rid of [Washington] because of the way they are going about it. What happened is, when he first got here two years ago, they saw him as a young black man who would do whatever they wanted. And in the beginning, he pretty much would. But now that he is standing up to them, they want to get rid of him to put their own person in."
Walker claimed that Washington had stood up to the mayor by refusing to allow Russo to put his name on a new community center the HHA hopes to build, and also refusing to allow the mayor to hand-pick the contractors tapped to develop it. But the mayor said that he had never asked Washington for "any political favors" of the sort, and Washington also said that he had not spoken to the mayor about the naming or the development of the center.
Fate still uncertain
As the residents and politicos flowed out of the meeting, the commissioners and Washington hunkered down for a closed meeting that they said was about "personnel matters." A source who participated in the meeting said that the commissioners and Washington discussed "changes" that needed to be made at the Housing Authority. Washington seemed amenable to them, which included adopting a softer tone when dealing with the residents, the source said.
After the meeting, Moyeno said she hoped to work with the board to initiate a balloting system that would allow residents to vote on whether or not they wanted Washington to stay. The details of the system have yet to be worked out, but Moyeno said no matter what its results, it would only be one of the factors the board uses to make a final judgement about whether or not to retain Washington.
After the meeting, Stefano sat at the long table where commissioners sit when they meet. He said that he has never had a personal problem with Washington and that he does not expect the long-running uncertainty about the executive director's future to have any impact on their relationship.
"All I've been doing is mirroring what the residents have been saying," he said. "I've been trying to act on their behalf."
Needs four months' notice
The clock has nearly run out on the board when it comes to making a decision on Washington. His contract stipulates that he must be notified 120 days before his contract ends if a new one is not going to be tendered. That leaves the board only one more meeting, in February, to act. Last week, Stefano said that he has no plans to introduce a resolution calling for a search for a new executive director. But he did point out that the board could extend Washington's contract temporarily, giving it the time it needs to meet the 120-day deadline.
If a search is conducted, the mayor said that he agreed with residents like Walker who have said that it needs to be a "nationwide" search. But he said Wednesday night that the intangible benefits that a Hoboken resident who knows the community should be considered.
"I think we are in this position in part because Mr. Washington is not local," said the mayor. "If he were from Hoboken he would not talk down to the residents and he might have a little more empathy."
The mayor also pointed out that Washington "was not my choice; it was the choice of the board." He said that a future director should also be the board's choice. The HHA is an independent agency overseen by the federal Housing and Urban Development and is not run by City Hall, although a councilwoman sits on the board of commissioners.
The feelings of the mayor's political opposition were perhaps best summed up last week by Tony Soares, a city councilman who is a regular attendee at HHA meetings.
"It's a lose-lose situation," he said. "If they get rid of him, we are starting all over with someone the mayor probably wants and who could be worse. If we keep him, I'm not sure that things are going to get better."