Short leash best for PHA for now

The spending priorities of Philadelphia Housing Authority director Michael P. Kelly (left) differ from those of his predecessor, Carl R. Greene (right), who was fired in September. (Staff Photos)

It makes sense for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to hold the Philadelphia Housing Authority in receivership for a while longer, so executive director Michael P. Kelly can continue his good work to repair the broken agency.

PHA was deeply hurt by the autocratic rule of former Executive Director Carl Greene. The board appointed by the mayor and the city controller was incapable of stopping Greene from spending money just about any way he wanted, including to secretly settle sexual-harassment complaints and pay belly dancers to perform at an authority event. The board didn’t even have an in-house counsel with the power to review Greene’s contracts with the city’s politically connected law firms. That sort of damage isn’t repaired overnight.

The delay in restoring local control of the PHA also gives Mayor Nutter time to sort out a dispute over the agency’s governance, which has long-term implications. Under the existing system, the mayor and city controller pick two board members each. Those four members then elect a fifth, typically a tenants’ representative. But Nutter wants to appoint all nine members, arguing the mayor should have ultimate responsibility for the agency’s board. The flaw with that arrangement is that a future mayor might fill the board with yes men.

The PHA needs the transparency that is more likely to occur by having some members with no ties to the mayor’s office, who would be free to shed light when they see irresponsible behavior. An alternative proposal by state Rep. Curtis Thomas, who has several PHA developments in his North Philadelphia district, would give the mayor five appointees on a nine-member board. City Council would get two appointees, and PHA residents two.

That mix may need refinement as well. The mayor does need enough pull on the board to ensure that the PHA largely marches in step with the city’s larger public-policy objectives in areas such as land development and shelter for the homeless.

Further discussion should produce the right formula for a reconstituted PHA board. The bad old days of rubber-stamping the executive director’s decisions must never return. At all times, the public should know what decisions are being made and why.