Former Interim Executive Director Robert DiVincent, whose contract the public housing agency had terminated last month so they could replace him with someone with more time to give, agreed to return as interim executive director.
DiVincent had been running the HHA - which oversees Hoboken's low-income and senior citizen housing projects - for 1.5 years. He was on loan from the West New York Housing Authority and was slowly bringing Hoboken's troubled agency out of a major financial and management crisis.
Some say DiVincent was only terminated so that the city could give the directorship to a local politician. But when the federal department of Housing and Urban Development stepped in, the housing board had to make sure it found someone qualified.
Rumored reasons for termination
There were two rumored behind-the-scenes reasons for the termination.
One issue cropped up this past February, when DiVincent hired Deputy Executive Director Colin Vice. Because DiVincent was only part-time, Vice was hired to run the day-to-day operations. But it was discovered that the Bridgeport, Conn. authority had bought out Vice's contract in December 2003 soon after that authority received a failing grade on the HUD physical assessment report. Vice has contended that she was forced out over politics.
Behind the scenes, several members of the HHA Board of Commissioners were critical of DiVincent's decision to bring in Vice, especially since he made the move without board approval.
The board majority needed to find a replacement. One name that was widely rumored was city Human Services Director Carmelo Garcia, who said last week that he had been approached for the position, but added that he is no longer being considered.
Garcia is also the unpaid president of the Board of Education, and hosts a cable talk show. According to a source inside City Hall, HUD officials vetoed a possible Garcia hiring. Garcia said recently that he does have the qualifications to be an executive director of a public housing authority, but added that he is no longer in consideration for the position.
This put the board majority in to a tight spot, since they had already pushed DiVincent and Vice out, and they couldn't hire Garcia for the position.
They found themselves in a rush to find a new interim director. They thought they got lucky with Robert Graham, another Connecticut housing director who had an impeccable 20-page resume and sterling reputation.
But in the hurry to hire Graham, no one was aware that Graham could only work part- time. They voted 4-2 to hire Graham at Aug. 11.
But Graham quit the HHA three days after being hired. Apparently, the day after he was hired, it was discovered that Graham could only work a couple of days per week.
Roberts: It's that commissioner's fault
On Monday, Mayor David Roberts met with officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"I'm greatly concerned with the current management structure of the Hoboken Housing Authority and the behavior of a certain commissioner who has undermined the process of stability," Roberts said in a statement.
Although he wouldn't elaborate on which commissioner he was referring to, it's possible that it was HHA Commissioner Perry Belfiore, who is believed to have led the charge to terminate DiVincent's contract in the first place and who has been openly critical of HUD.
Belfiore said Thursday that he has given his best effort to make improvements at the Housing Authority. "I have no quarrel with the mayor and hope the mayor has no quarrel with me," Belfiore said Thursday evening. "When he appointed me to the housing authority board, he told me to go down there to improve it, and I'm doing it the best way I know how. Maybe I'm breaking too many eggs and not making a fluffy enough omelet, but I think the people that live in the Housing Authority know I have their interest at heart."
Belfiore said that he has been on HUD bad side ever since he was critical of HUD's protection of former Executive Director E. Troy Washington two years ago. It was later learned that Washington left the authority with an alleged $4 million deficit, so Belfiore's complaints have proven to have some legitimacy. But his vocal and driving approach has certainly made some enemies in HUD's upper echelon.
Roberts added that he has been meeting regularly with representatives from HUD who share his "concern about the lack of executive leadership at the HHA."
Roberts said that he strongly recommended that the HHA board bring back DiVincent. On Wednesday, the HHA board by a phone vote rehired DiVincent, meaning that he has been in Hoboken working this past week. That vote will have to be memorialized at the next HHA commissioners' meeting.
DiVincent said Friday morning that he harbors no hard feelings, and that he is ready to get back to work. "I'm looking forward to finishing what we started and I'm ready to take this housing authority to the next level."
He also praised Roberts for stepping in and mediating the situation. He said without Roberts efforts it would be unlikely that he would have come back to Hoboken.
Roberts said that he will personally continue to meet regularly with DiVincent, representatives of HUD and the HHA commissioners "until management and structural issues have been resolved."
Plenty to criticize
But critics of the Roberts administration have plenty of fodder. Commissioner Lynda Walker has said from the beginning that DiVincent's contract should never have been terminated in the first place.
"The whole entire thing is about politics," said Walker, an HHA tenant. "They were making a move to take over the Housing Authority, but got caught with their hands in the cookie jar." Commissioner Christopher Campos, who is also the City Council president, responded that it wasn't about politics, and it was never a question about DiVincent's ability but was about the amount of time that DiVincent had to give to the job.
"Mr. DiVincent has done and excellent job in getting our ship righted, and he will do a great job until we are able to find a permanent executive director," Campos said. "I welcome Mr. DiVincent back with open arms."
Walker retorted that if this was the case, then Campos and his allies would never have pushed DiVincent out in the first place.
Campos has said in the past that he wants the next director to be a Hoboken resident. This would certainly limit the pool of people who could apply to run the troubled agency.
Housing Authority still 'troubled'
After former Executive Director E. Troy Washington left the Hoboken Housing Authority in late 2003 to run the Jersey City Housing Authority, it was discovered that there were major problems with the authority's finances, buildings and grounds.
According to an audit that was presented to the Newark Branch of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the HHA was allegedly operating with a nearly $4 million deficit and had overspent its budget by millions of dollars.
The report said the HHA's capital funds, which are often called "brick and mortar" funds because they are allotted for physical improvements and construction, had gone toward "soft" or operational expenses such as salaries.
In April, agents from the FBI and Housing and Urban Development visited Hoboken to look over every contract signed by Washington when he was head of the HHA, trying to account for $4 million in alleged overexpenditures.
Also, according to the Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS), the HHA is considered "troubled" due to failing scores in both physical and financial areas.
According to the assessment, the HHA has failed the physical indicator with an overall score of 15 points out of 30, or 50 percent. The Christopher Columbus Gardens, Andrew Jackson Gardens, and Harrison Gardens developments received failing physical scores.
If the HHA is unable to follow the steps outlined in a corrective action plan that was signed with HUD in June of 2004, HUD has threatened to take over the HHA. It's threat that continues to loom over the authority.
Director Robert DiVincent, who just returned to the authority, was responsible for outlining the corrective action plan, and will continue to steer the authority for now.