For the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA), this past Tuesday’s special board meeting was a moment of many returns, some happier than others. First and foremost, it marked the temporary return of Robert DiVincent to the agency, where he will reprise his former role as interim executive director until a full-time replacement can be found.
The meeting also saw the return of DiVincent’s predecessor Carmelo Garcia, who appeared at his first board meeting since his firing on Aug. 4. He delivered an ardent defense of his administration of the HHA. Finally, Tuesday marked the return of board meetings to the public housing projects, as opposed to the controversial setting of City Hall, where three of the last six sessions have been held.
The majority of the HHA’s volunteer board, which was appointed by the City Council and is considered to be allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, see DiVincent’s hire as a chance to return the HHA to solvency and accountability. But DiVincent is also working at two other area housing authorities.
In 2004, DiVincent stepped in as temporary director after former director E. Troy Washington left the agency with an alleged $3.6 million deficit. He ended up staying for five years, and was applauded by many for enforcing stability on the organization.
Garcia, a longtime Hoboken politico who grew up in town, was hired after DiVincent left. He has been at odds with the Zimmer administration and was terminated last month.
“Don’t say we’re saving money when we have to pay three individuals.”—Barbara Reyes
However, residents at Tuesday’s meeting cheered Garcia’s reappearance, saying the HUD review and audit unfairly exploit the damage their homes sustained during Superstorm Sandy and have been used to justify Garcia’s removal for political reasons.
The HHA oversees approximately 1,350 units of subsidized housing in town.
New director secured
On Tuesday, the housing board unanimously approved a shared services agreement with the West New York Housing Authority (WNYHA), where DiVincent currently serves as executive director, to retain his services on an interim basis. DiVincent is also the executive director of the Weehawken Housing Authority.
HHA Chair Dana Wefer complimented West New York on their openness to adding additional clauses to the agreement at the behest of the Hoboken board. In particular, she emphasized including a clear termination clause that will allow the board to end DiVincent’s tenure when a replacement is found.
Under the one-year agreement, DiVincent’s staff will also provide service for Hoboken’s housing projects. The HHA will pay the WNYHA $6,437 per month for the rest of 2014, with scheduled annual increases if DiVincent continues to serve.
According to a provisional version of the interlocal agreement provided to the Hoboken Reporter, DiVincent’s term of office will begin on Sept. 1.
The role of current acting director Richard Fox was also clarified Tuesday. At the last regular board meeting on Aug. 14, Wefer said both Fox and DiVincent would be acting directors, but on Tuesday she said Fox will return to his former role as management consultant once DiVincent takes over.
Wefer emphasized that Fox’s service as a consultant and his tenure as acting director both fell under the same contract, which was created when former director Garcia hired him to help the authority apply for a state infrastructure repair grant. The not-to-exceed amount on Fox’s contract was extended to $85,000 on the 14th, but his pay rate of $2,500 a week was not increased.
Wefer said Fox “became a fixture at the Housing Authority” after being brought on in February. “He has a lot of institutional knowledge to pass on,” she added.
Criticizing the costs
In addition to the West New York shared services deal and Fox’s extended contract, the housing board voted earlier in August to give Garcia a four-month payout in order to satisfy the termination clause in his contract.
Based on the rate set out in his contract, Garcia would be owed $56,000. But on Tuesday, Garcia told the Reporter that his salary had been raised prior to his termination to $634 per day, meaning he would be owed $76,080.
On Thursday, Wefer said that the HHA Board will be promptly compensating Garcia.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Barbara Reyes, the president of the HHA Resident Advisory Board, questioned why the board was emphasizing the HHA’s operating losses when its decision to terminate Garcia led to increased spending by the agency. “Don’t say we’re saving money when we have to pay three individuals,” said Reyes to Wefer, “you’re not talking to an idiot.”
Public housing resident Sigsby Cheatham questioned how the HHA had the money for three director salaries but not enough money to send children on an annual trip to Playland Amusement Park in Rye, N.Y.
In past years, the HHA has partially funded the trip, but when organizers went to Acting Director Fox this year, Wefer said they were told that the proper procedure was to make a request to the Resident Advisory Board. “There’s going to be a little bit of confusion and upheaval as we move into implementing policies that weren’t being followed but should have been,” she added.
“What we really want is not two days at an amusement park,” said Cheatham. “What we really want is for our children to go away on a summer vacation at least once a week in the summer, but you all want to spend money on this man,” he added, referring to Fox.
Reviewing the review
In an interview after the Tuesday board meeting, Garcia had strong words for the HUD procurement review released to the press by board chair Wefer two weeks ago. The review criticizes the authority for a lack of required documentation surrounding the eight randomly selected contracts it examined. It also questions the use of emergency solicitations to award large contracts without going to bid.
The review was conducted by members of HUD’s New Jersey public housing office on the week of July 28 under the supervision of office director Sonia Burgos.
Garcia said the housing board majority intentionally fired him before the exit meeting for the review on Aug. 13 so that he could not defend himself or explain deficiencies in the review. The meeting was attended by Wefer, board vice chair David Mello, and Commissioner Judith Burrell, all of whom voted for Garcia’s termination.
One of those key deficiencies was a lack of proper documentation for things like copies of newspaper advertisements seeking bids, construction monitoring reports, and bid tabulation logs.
Garcia attributed much of this to the chaotic period surrounding Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, during which the Housing Authority was flooded, causing many files to be destroyed or placed in storage.
“I can take you to two rooms right now in the Housing Authority,” said Garcia, “and you’d see boxes that still haven’t been unwrapped because they had mold, so the employees didn’t want to unwrap them.”
According to Garcia, the HUD officials charged with conducting the review were only in the HHA offices for three days, preventing a full assessment of the files present.
The review made special note of two emergency contracts awarded to Haddad Electric and All Risk in the immediate aftermath of Sandy for electrical repairs and debris removal respectively.
“Even after 18 months later,” the review stated, “HHA have been using these same contractors on an as needed bases [sic] by way of purchase orders. It appears that by issuing these purchase orders, HHA has circumvented the bidding process.”
Overall, the review said, the Authority engaged in over $3 million of “unjustified non-competitive procurement.”
Garcia said that emergency situations continued to arise long after Sandy flooding had subsided, as saltwater-corroded wires and electrical equipment gradually broke down. He argued that purchase orders were a legitimate contractual way to address these issues. Garcia also claimed that the HHA board had gone out to bid for electrical contractors and received no offers besides Haddad.
Finally, Garcia pointed out that the money given to Haddad and All Risk was covered by flood insurance and did not come from the HHA’s operating budget.
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.