Management style challenged at PHA meeting

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An employee gets a rise out of coworkers during a mandatory meeting with the Philadelphia Housing Authority board Thursday at the Convention Center.

When Philadelphia Housing Authority workers were handed the microphone at the employee pep rally Thursday, it seemed the last thing they wanted to talk about was their ex-boss, Carl R. Greene.

Instead, they offered a litany of grievances. About pensions, raises, overtime pay, and stalled contract negotiations.

Then, from almost the last row of the cavernous ballroom at the Convention Center, rose union official Linda Gibson.

Her topic was not the secret sexual-harassment settlements that got Greene terminated by the board. She wanted to know whether PHA managers would abandon Greene's despotic behavior.

"Many of the people in management have taken on the persona of the former executive director, with their foot on people's neck all day," said Gibson, president of AFSCME Council 33 Local 934.

"I want to know if management style is going to change," she said to growing applause.

The mandatory meeting for PHA's 1,400 workers was intended as a morale booster after six weeks of near-daily headlines about Greene. So, as board members acknowledged their own failings and praised the workforce, the session also highlighted the challenges facing future management at the nation's fourth-largest public-housing agency.

For most of Greene's tenure, PHA was defined by the transformation in public housing he orchestrated. On Thursday, however, workers and PHA chairman John F. Street, the former mayor, acknowledged that even for rank-and-file employees there was a darker side.

The agency was described as a place where employees feared that speaking out would result in demotion, or worse.

"Carl Greene was vicious," said maintenance mechanic Brian Manley, who acknowledged that most employees remained fearful to speak publicly. "And it filtered all the way down."

As workers left the hall, some two dozen were asked their reaction to the session. Each had virtually the same verbatim answer: "No comment."

One man, who did not give his name, said he could never talk within sight of a supervisor.

When Gibson finished asking whether Greene's departure would change the behavior of senior managers, Street said, "The short answer is yes.

"We expect people to be dealt with in fairness and in dignity. Folks don't have to be humiliated in order to get them to do the right thing. It isn't necessary," Street said. "We're going pay more attention to it."

Street told the crowd that employees had deluged him with e-mails asking him and the board to solve problems or investigate reports of wrongdoing.

But those same whistle-blowers insist on total anonymity, and that ties his hands, he said.

"To send a message, and say, 'I can't talk to anybody, don't mention my name,' that makes it really, really hard for us.

"If you want me to look into something, I have to be able to tell somebody," Street told the crowd.

Not everyone was convinced that change is coming.

Street rattled some employees when he named, and appeared to endorse, three of Greene's inner circle, Carolyn Carter, assistant executive director of operations; Dianne Rosenthal, assistant executive director of finance; and Shelly James, chief of staff. Carter, described in a PHA report last week as having had a relationship with Greene, was not present.

Stacey Thomas, employee relations coordinator, said coworkers were "dumbstruck." There needs to be "major change at the top," Thomas said.

Street said later that his introduction of the executives was not an endorsement of them for future leadership at PHA.

James was described in the PHA report as being part of a small circle of senior staff that enabled Greene to cover up the harassment complaints.

During the session, the former mayor was every bit the politician, campaigning not only to restore the morale of the agency's 1,400 employees, but his own reputation as chairman of PHA.

"Our work has not been perfect, either," he said. "I personally wake up in the middle of the night and I say to myself, 'If some of this stuff was going on, how could I not have heard of it?' "

Street said he regreted that employees felt unable to contact board members.

"I feel very bad about that," he said.

Greene was fired for concealing four sexual-harassment complaints from the board. Three were settled secretly.

Board member Patrick Eiding also criticized outside attorneys Greene hired in place of in-house counsel. Some of those lawyers were involved in handling the sexual-harassment complaints that were kept from the board.

"Not one of those attorneys ever called," Eiding said.

Board member Nellie Reynolds promised workers, "This is going to be a new day. . . . I am going to stay on this board until some changes are made."

Reynolds gave Greene credit for his accomplishments but then criticized his penchant for self-promotion.

"His name was on everything. All around . . . 'Mr. Carl Greene,' " she said. "We might . . . remove it with paint."

Greene, who has filed a lawsuit against the board, is receiving outpatient medical care.

His attorney, Clifford E. Haines, said in a statement that Greene was being treated "for conditions related to the onslaught of accusations made against him. Many of those accusations are incorrect or inaccurate, and likely libelous."

He also said Greene would not make any public statements or offer interviews.

The board is interviewing candidates for an interim director before launching a national search for a permanent replacement. Street said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had submitted its own list of candidates.

 


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.