Disagreement over the management and financial accountability of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) surfaced at the November meeting of the Board of Commissioners.
Triggered by a memorandum from Commissioner Shirley Marshall dated November 5, 2003, to her fellow commissioners, she proposed the establishment of both a Samuel Madden Task Force and a Finance Committee to review "the financial documents of ARHA on a bi-monthly basis." It was the latter that brought forth the greatest opposition.
Marshall began her memo by stating, "Serious management concerns have been raised over the continued turnover in Financial Directors at ARHA. We have now lost our fourth director in four years. This problem is aggravated by long-standing financial and management concerns which have not been addressed."
Early in November, Belle Seyoum, finance director, announced she would be resigning effective the end of 2003. There have been a series of short term directors over the past three years. Two decided to return to their home areas and one served on an interim basis prior to Seyoum's employment.
According to both William Dearman, executive director, ARHA, and A. Melvin Miller, chairman, ARHA Board of Commissioners, Seyoum did not give a specific reason for leaving. She has been with the Authority since May 2002, according to ARHA. Ads for her replacement began appearing two weeks ago with an applicant closing date of December 12.
"She has done a lot of good things," Miller said. "But the HUD (U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development) accounting mechanisms are very unique in many ways and can be very frustrating if you're not used to them."
Miller disagreed with Marshall's proposal to establish a Finance Committee. "The ARHA by-laws state the Chair has the right to appoint committees as they are deemed necessary and appropriate," he said at the meeting. "But when you start setting up committees you demand more time from the volunteers."
Marshall countered that such a committee need not be more than two people. "And, I would be willing to be one of those people," she emphasized.
ADDRESSING THE criticism that such a committee would be interfering with the role of the executive director, Marshall pointed out, "When I have asked financial questions of Bill [Dearman] he refers me to Belle. So, I am following the lead of the executive director."
In her memorandum, Marshall had noted, "As an Executive Director myself, I strongly believe in the need for staff not to be "micromanaged." Our job is primarily oversight, not doing the work of staff. We have a special responsibility, however, to ensure fiscal integrity."
She attributed her concerns with management and finances to "findings" which had been "noted in the audits of the past several years" and "low HUD scores received by ARHA." She did not specify categories for the latter rationale. Audit "findings" are areas within the financial management of an organization where improvements and/or corrections need to be addressed.
Marshall's memo cited three management and financial concerns:
*Lack of any formal - or informal - training system for moving unskilled workers into skilled jobs or for moving staff forward or improving staff qualifications. This adds to the high turnover rate.
*Lack of sufficient staff in critical roles, which means that there are not enough trained staff to do the necessary work or to compensate when turnover occurs.
*Discrepancies between the financial tenant records and the program tenant records."
TO SOLVE THESE stated shortcomings, Marshall proposed the establishment of the task force and finance committee. For the latter, she proposed it have the following responsibilities:
*Review the financial documents of ARHA on a bi-monthly basis and "report to the Commission on items of special note."
*Work with the Finance Director "to ensure that they have the support needed to get work done appropriately."
*Provide "one non-staff member to the audit selection panel."
Marshall's proposals brought forth near unanimous criticism from the other Commissioners. "We only have the responsibility to hire and fire one person, the CEO," said Carlyle C. Ring, Jr., vice chairman. "If we have concerns about administration we talk to the CEO."
One of the more recent appointee to the Commission, Leslie Hagan, noted, "If we identify a problem it should be before the Commission as a whole. There is also the question of staff time to be consumed by a committee. I would not be comfortable establishing subcommittees."
Commissioner Ruby Tucker added, "You have turnover all the time in every organization. You can set up any number of committees. But, if people want to leave, they will leave."
THE ONLY Commissioner to defend Marshall's proposal was Carter Flemming. She said, "I don't think it's unusual to have a committee structure" for an organization such as ARHA.
As for the creation of a Samuel Madden Task Force to be headed by Melvin Miller and Connie Ring, which Marshall proposed, Miller rejected the idea. "There isn't any need for a Berg Committee at this point. We are all entitled to all the information," he said.
Addressing the selection of an auditor or audit firm to conduct ARHA's annual financial review and evaluation, and Marshall's claim, "This organization has had findings every year," Miller answered, "I oversaw Housing Authorities nationwide and I can't think of one with no findings. And, the decision to select an auditor is the Board's decision."
Undaunted, Marshall pressed her point by stating, "We have long- term financial problems. My main objective is to gain a better understanding. Why is it a concern that we have closer supervision of our finances?"
She then moved the creation a Finance Committee. It was seconded by Flemming. The vote was six to two to defeat the motion. Those voting in favor were Marshall and Flemming.
FOLLOWING THE MEETING, Marshall explained, "This is the second time I've tried to establish a finance committee. My real concern is with both the personnel turnover in the Finance Director position and with audit findings that seem to persist year after year.
"If we have a personnel committee and don't have trouble with people serving on that, why would a finance committee be different? You only need two. And, I'm willing to be one of those."
Throughout the debate Dearman remained silent. However, after the meeting, when asked his opinion, he answered, "I think the Board handled it very well."
Prior to discussion of Marshall's memorandum there was tension between she and Miller when it came to approval of the minutes of the October 27, meeting. Marshall raised a question as to the phraseology pertaining to the number of audit findings "still outstanding" as referred to in the minutes.
After a back and forth discussion as to whether the number applied to the most recent audit or should be an accumulation of annual audits, all but Marshall agreed to approve the minutes as corrected. Commissioner Linda Cheatham, the newest member of the Board, abstained due to being absent for the October meeting.
When Dearman proposed that ARHA seek bids on preparing a 65th anniversary history of the organization, Marshall stated, "The 65th anniversary is not that significant. It's not worth the expenditure." Others agreed and the matter was not voted upon.
IN OTHER ACTIONS, the Commission:
*Accepted the first draft of the 2004 budget. It will now be analyzed and adjusted for a potential vote in December. No figures were discussed pending final preparation. Fiscal 2003 calls for total Operating Revenue of $18.5 million and total Operating Expenses of $18.1 million. As of October 31 there was an under budget net income of $436,229, according to the most recent financial statement.
*Noted, "In regard to the taking of the South Whiting Street site by Eminent Domain, ARHA's counsel states that the Authority has control of the site and the ability to construct its works and improvements ... the only issue before the Court in the pending condemnation proceeding is the issue of "just compensation" to be paid to the landowner." The trial was scheduled to begin December 3 in Alexandria Circuit Court. It was further noted, "Upon conclusion ... the Court will issue a final order vesting title in the Authority." The property in question is one of the offsite parcels that comprise the overall Berg redevelopment package.
*Announced the projected settlement date for the Berg project is mid December. Groundbreaking is expected in January 2004.