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Unscheduled Executive Session Halts ARHA Board Meeting

When the board of a public body goes into executive session in the middle of an open meeting and specifically excludes staff from its deliberations, it is usually not a good sign.

That is what happened Monday night at the first 2002 meeting of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) Board of Commissioners meeting at Ladrey High-Rise. The board members’ abrupt exit was preceded by a curt explanation that they "wanted to discuss real-estate and personnel matters."

As of Tuesday morning, ARHA executive director William Dearman and his staff still had no hint what triggered the board's exit to an adjoining conference room or why they were excluded. The session lasted approximately 25 minutes. The board members returned to the public meeting to continue with the agenda, offering no explanations.

The only commissioner not to participate in the rump session was Antoine P. Cobb, who said, "Out of an abundance of caution, I am recusing myself from discussions with relation to The Berg's redevelopment, due to the ethical obligations of the Virginia State Bar."

Cobb's action was based on ARHA's agenda, which listed "board response to ARC [Alexandria Resident Council] letter regarding offer of sale" and the assumption the executive session was to discuss the ARC letter concerning a first right of refusal on purchasing The Berg if it were put up for sale.

Under HUD guidelines an organization such as ARC could possibly have such a right if and when public housing land is put on the open market. ARC had written a letter requesting the Commission's clarification of the matter, but Pete Jones, president of ARC, informed the board immediately before its exit that ARC had withdrawn its request.

In October 2001, the board was reconstituted with three new members, and one seat was left open until Monday night. Two of the departing commissioners, Myke W. Reid and Murray M. Bonnitt, had indicated a desire to be replaced at the end of their terms. Former chairperson Michele Chapman was not reappointed by City Council.

The three vacated seats were filled by Carter Flemming, Shirley Marshall and Judith Seltz. One seat is held by an appointment from the Alexandria Office of Housing, Landlord/Tenant Relations, after approval from City Council. It must be held by a renter within the city.

That position was held by Debra E. Zusman until she resigned last fall, after she purchased a home that disqualified her to fill that slot. The new appointee, Fletcher S. Johnston, attended his first board meeting Monday night.

TWO OTHER NO-ACTIONS

In addition to the mystery executive session, the board also failed to act on two other elements of the agenda that have proved contentious in past sessions. One was the appointment of a board member to serve on the city's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, and the other was the final approval of ARHA's 2002 budget.

As for the appointment, newly elected ARHA chairman A. Melvin Miller indicated after the meeting he would assume that role. But the failure to adopt the proposed comprehensive budget was also cloaked in the vague language of "we want more information."

This was explained by Dearman as, "It's only on the agenda for board review and information. They wanted a balance sheet, which is not normally supplied. But its passage is not urgent, as long as we get it done by March." The public housing portion was submitted to HUD in November.

The budget was first submitted at the November board meeting and tentatively approved after nearly two hours of discussion and confusion, particularly on the part of the new board members. At that meeting the board voted unanimously to approve the $17,177,000 fiscal blueprint for 2002.

During the November session Commissioner Carlyle C. Ring Jr. said, "We don't have the total budget before us. This is just the public housing portion. I would like to see the total budget." At that point, former ARHA finance director Rick Koffernaus admitted he had forgotten to include one of the handouts.

After distribution of the additional document, it was decided that the new budget could be voted on and that staff would rework the figures to balance the HUD element. That assignment was given to Archie Alexander, a former ARHA chief executive and director of finance, who has agreed to serve as a consulting aid until a new finance director is named.

Miller explained Monday's delay in final adoption as "an attempt to give the board members the opportunity to talk to staff and Alexander to further clarify any questions." He noted, "With the involvement of HUD, it's very complicated. However, everything in the budget is dictated by federal regs, how it is to be used."

Even though ARHA's fiscal year coincides with the calendar year, Miller saw no problem with delaying the final approval by a month. Dearman agreed, saying, "The HUD portion will probably not be approved before June."

In other actions, The board took the following actions:

* Elected Miller as chairman and Ring as vice chairperson. The terms are for one year with no term limits;

* Presented plaques to Jackie Nutwell and Gary Gallahan on their retirement as longtime employees of ARHA. Nutwell, a 20-year employee, has served as the work-order coordinator, handling all maintenance requests. Gallahan, a 30-year ARHA veteran, has been the authority's supervisor of maintenance;

* Approved the new health and dental plans for ARHA employees at 80 percent of cost. This was debated extensively in November when new Commissioner Shirley Marshall argued in favor of having ARHA pick up 100 percent of the cost. Dearman resisted, stating that he did not want to promise something he could not deliver. He noted that he would like to approve the plan at 100 percent but it was not financially realistic.