Sunday, February 7, 2016

Entire PHA board should resign

What is it going to take for the Philadelphia Housing Authority's board of commissioners to go away?

Entire PHA board should resign

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The Philadelphia Housing Authority board during a meeting in August: from left, Patrick Eiding, Debra Brady, Jannie Blackwell, Nellie Reynolds, and John F. Street. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
The Philadelphia Housing Authority board during a meeting in August: from left, Patrick Eiding, Debra Brady, Jannie Blackwell, Nellie Reynolds, and John F. Street. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer) LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer

What is it going to take for the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s board of commissioners to go away?

The board was either asleep at the switch or hoodwinked as former Executive Director Carl R. Greene spent millions of dollars on outside legal fees and paid hundreds of thousands in tax dollars to settle several sexual harassment cases against him.

The federal Housing and Urban Development department rightly called on the board to resign last week. But so far the board members, led by former Mayor John F. Street, have rebuffed HUD.

The recalcitrant PHA board should reconsider and do the right thing, for the sake of enabling the agency to escape its current cloud and resume its mission of providing public housing for needy residents.

The board claims not to have known that PHA settled three sexual harassment lawsuits against Greene for $648,000. At the very least, the board stood by while Greene recommended exorbitant expenditures on public-housing construction and outside legal counsel that’s now a subject of intense scrutiny by HUD and Congress.

The PHA commissioners’ best defense of the lax oversight rests on being clueless — or failing to show up, in the case of one board member who missed more than half the meetings. It’s either that or worse. That’s why the five-member board needs to be replaced.

Under Street’s leadership since 2004, when he appointed himself while mayor, the board has failed to adhere to a most basic rule of thumb that it avoid any appearance of conflict. As The Inquirer reported Sunday, Street voted on several occasions to send tens of thousands of dollars in legal work to a law firm that employed his son, Sharif Street.

The former mayor says he had a waiver from HUD to give the legal work to his son’s firm. At the very least, Street showed poor judgment in not recusing himself. Moreover, federal officials dispute that they gave Street the waiver.

Overall, the cost of PHA’s spending on outside lawyers has emerged as a major element of the scandal. Taxpayers already are on the hook for $38.5 million spent on lawyers since 2007, a far bigger legal tab than at other big-city housing authorities. Now HUD officials will spend nearly $2 million more as they send in auditors to try to unravel whether federal funds were misspent.

The only surprise in HUD’s ouster demand was that it took officials this long to conclude the board’s removal was needed as part of the housecleaning at the agency that’s landlord to thousands of low-income Philadelphia families. Under a capable interim director — New York City public housing manager Michael P. Kelly — the housing agency is making strides. But a new board is needed to ensure better oversight and confidence.

That should be the stance, too, of Mayor Nutter and City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who appointed four of the five PHA board members. Butkovitz has defended the board, while the mayor has adopted a mostly hands-off approach.

Nutter could and should replace City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, whose term has ended, instead of lamenting that he doesn’t have more authority over PHA. Yet, Nutter won’t use his existing power to reform the board.

Meanwhile, Butkovitz missed a perfect opportunity to lead in the midst of the scandal by reappointing the often-absent Debra L. Brady, wife of Rep. Bob Brady.

Given the lack of local leadership, perhaps HUD, as the PHA’s main funder, should take stronger steps to spur the board’s replacement.

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