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Another Board Member Out at New Brunswick Housing Authority

City Claims NBHA Board Does Not Have "Weak Membership" Despite Problems
Anthony Cupano
Anthony Cupano chairing a meeting during the summer of 2012. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Even as top city officials claim the embattled New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) Board of Commissioners does not suffer from "weak memberbership," the agency recently lost another board member and was forced to cancel a public meeting.

At some point in August or September, Anthony Cupano became the third NBHA board member to leave office in just over a year, according to NBHA Executive Director John Clarke.

"He has left the board," confirmed Clarke. "We did hear from Commissioner Cupano who notified us that he's no longer serving in the holdover capacity."

But it's hard to notice a difference at the agency's public board meetings, where Cupano has not made an appearance in more than three years.

Cupano missed at least 38 straight board meetings since January 23, 2013, the last time he was present at a NBHA public meeting, according to agency records.

Cupano's repeated absences have forced the NBHA to cancel at least three meetings since May 2015, and also may have kept the board's "Operations Committee" from having a much-needed meeting to address a brewing scandal.

Since the abrupt departure of two board members last summer--and even before then--the seven-member NBHA board has frequently struggled to achieve "quorum," a required minimum number of board members to conduct business at a public meeting.

From 2010 to 2012, Cupano led the NBHA board, which is responsible for hiring and firing the agency's Executive Director, and managing its $14.3 million annual budget.

The NBHA operates hundreds of public housing units in three different areas of New Brunswick, in addition to a "Section 8" housing voucher program, consisting of about 900 vouchers.

According to the agency's current organization chart, another public housing site controlled by the agency is classified as "Under Construction." 

But, presently, there is no construction going on at the site, where a senior housing building on Neilsen Street once stood, before being demolished in 2012.

An out-of-state developer, Pennrose Properties, was loaned more than $1 million to replace it, according to NBHA records, but the community is still awaiting replacement housing.

The authority also serves as the city's "redevelopment agency," which gives it the power to approve or deny proposed projects intended for "redevelopment areas" in the Hub City.

The dual functions of the agency are often at odds with one another, pitting the interests of their low-income public housing tenants against powerful developers set on replacing affordable housing with privately-controlled projects.

The two authorities, and their functions, could be separated if the city desired, and the state agreed.  One or both authorities could also be eliminated and the corresponding function assumed by the city government itself.

"Authorities with weak membership or insufficient local level monitoring can become wasteful, inefficient, or unresponsive to the public they serve," warns the state government, in its request that local governments annually evaluate their autonomous authorities.

The NJ Department of Community Affairs says that cities should "at least annually assess the authority or authorities they created and publicly discuss their findings and conclusions," and address "whether the authority’s continued existence is appropriate, and whether the authority is appropriately and efficiently serving its residents." 

The NBHA board typically schedules just eleven public meetings per year, and even though they are held in the epicenter of their largest housing project, they are almost always poorly-attended by members of the public and the board alike.

The meetings typically last less than an hour, and New Brunswick Today contributors are frequently the only members of the public in attendance.

In February, this reporter also filed a lawsuit against the NBHA for apparent violations of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), alleging that it was "like pulling teeth" to get them to release public records.

That case still drags on more than eight months later, with many of the requested documents and records still not released.

Earlier this year, NBToday exposed a scheme where the authority was overcharging residents of the Schwartz Homes and Robeson Village with "improper parking fines," along with a slew of other questionable charges that were tacked onto their rent.

The parking fines were, more often than not, in excess of the amounts for parking fines legally allowed anywhere else in New Brunswick.

They were also extrajudicial--done outside the court system typically used for parking violations.  Instead, the agency simply tacked on the fines to the rent of tenants in the complex.

The agency ultimately reimbursed tenants thousands of dollars after NBT exposed the scheme, but there are still questions about the validity of many of the questionable fines that have not been overturned.

"That was inappropriate," Mayor James Cahill said of the scheme, adding that the fines were levied "without proper authority or regulation."

"I assume it was someone at the Housing Authority," said Cahill, asked whose idea it was to issue violations for twice the price allowed by city ordinance.

"I don't know exactly whose idea it was."

The agency has stopped issuing parking fines altogether ever since this newspaper exposed the scheme in February.

Cupano's departure means that board members Yirgu Wolde and Dale Caldwell are the only two remaining members of the board's dysfunctional "Operations Committee," which Clarke has said must meet to review the findings of the NBHA's own internal investigation before he will make a "full report" to the board about the parking fine scandal.

The board members have never asked about the parking fine scandal, and the issue only comes up at board meetings when New Brunswick Today asks about it during the public comment portion of the agenda.

Since Cupano attended his last board meeting in 2013, at least 21 of the 38 NBHA meetings held have barely achieved a quorum, with only four members present.

Many others have had to be cancelled, often at the last minute.

As recently as October 27, Clarke was forced to cancel the board's meeting on short notice.

At 3:22pm, Clarke confirmed, "Yes there IS a NBHA Board meeting tonight at 6:45PM," but less than two hours later, he was singing a different tune.

"I have been informed that we do not have a quorum, so tonight meeting is cancelled," Clarke wrote in an email at 4:57pm.  "Sorry for the late notice on this, but I was just informed."

More than a week later, Clarke still has not responded to a request for a copy of the meeting's agenda, and the public notice issued for it.

By law, Housing Authority boards have five members appointed by the City Council, one member appointed by the Mayor, and one more appointed by the Governor.

During the summer of 2015, two of the seven NBHA board members left abruptly amid a series of New Brunswick Today articles that later won a local investigative reporting award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.

Luis Gonzalez resigned from his office in August 2015, just two weeks after being named Chairman of the board.

It was also just days after he told this newspaper that he lived outside the city, in violation of an ordinance requiring board members to be city residents, or to work full-time for the local government.

Ida Brangman, a senior citizen who at one point fulfilled the important requirement for one member to serve on the board who lives in NBHA housing, was also forced to leave the board due to her ineligibility to serve shortly thereafter.

The City Council, which gets to appoint five members to the seven-member board, was responsible for naming the replacements for Gonzalez and Brangman.

It quickly became apparent, however, that it was Mayor Cahill--and not the Council--who had selected the replacements: Cesar Ovando and Frank Simpson.

In 2016, the parking scandal has been just one of several systemic issues at the agency.  But it's also one that the agency has been unable to put to bed, partly due to weak participation from board members.

"When will the board be getting a full report on this matter?" NBToday asked at the July 27 board meeting, following up on a promise Clarke had publicly made at a prior meeting.

"As soon as we can get the operations committee together. I know it's been challenging with people's schedules," responded Clarke, saying he was "sure" that the committee would meet "before the next [NBHA] meeting."

But that proved to be inaccurate, and at the September 28 board meeting, Clarke again kicked the can down the road.

"Chairman [Yirgu] Wolde... has been out of the country.  I believe he is trying to schedule that meeting for October," explained Clarke.

The October NBHA meeting was, of course, cancelled due to the lack of a quorum.

That means, the public might not get answers regarding the scandal until the board's next public meeting on November 15 at 6:45pm.

The meeting will be held at the Schwartz-Robeson Community Center, at 7 Van Dyke Avenue, assuming enough board members can show up.

In an effort to justify the NBHA's continued existence, the city government recently claimed that the board "does not have weak membership" 

In an effort to be able to say they assessed the efficiency and responsiveness of the city's two authorities, the NBHA and the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), both agencies were briefly reviewed during the October 19 City Council meeting.

Although the city listed an item on the agenda citing a "CY2016 Best Practices Inventory," no mention was made of either authority on the agenda.

While NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon was present for the meeting, Clarke was nowhere to be found.

Instead, the Council deferred to Douglas Petix, the city's finance director and a man who previously occupied the same position as Cupano, when he served as the state's representative on the NBHA decades earlier.

"We've analyzed what they do," said Petix, though his remarks failed to mention the agency's dual-role as housing and redevelopment agency.

"The other options would be possibly privatizing it, having outside people for-profit, administering the program--if that's even possible--or assuming these responsibilities in the municipality," Petix said.

"They've expanded to show that they are a fairly efficient organization into Franklin Township, and now they serve both," said Petix, citing 50 public housing units and an additional 238 "Section 8" housing vouchers.

Also not mentioned in Petix's remarks were a number of shared services agreements with other housing authorities that didn't pan out, such as the short-lived arrangement with one based in Wilmington, Delaware. 

A new Governor was elected and replaced Petix on the NBHA board around the time that the state accused the agency of exceeding its budget for its officials--often the board members themselves--to travel to various educational seminars and conferences around the country.

Several years worth of travel records are among those requested by this newspaper, and like many other requested records, the agency's response remains incomplete more than a year since our request.

It’s now up to embattled Governor Chris Christie to appoint a successor to Cupano.

A spokesperson for the Governor did not respond to questions about Christie's plans to replace Cupano, or how people interested in serving in the position could apply.

The NBHA could likely benefit from additional oversight, but it's unclear if Christie, whose term in office ends in Janaury 2018, has any intention of filling the vacant seat.

Christie is currently spending much of his time campaigning for Donald Trump, and dealing with the fallout from his own scandal.

The Governor faces a complaint that he committed the second-degree crime of official misconduct, for failing to halt the purposeful traffic jam started by his political appointees in September 2013.

Cupano was appointed to the powerful board by ex-Governor Jon Corzine, shortly after he retired from the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA), and began collecting a $63,2o1 annual pension.

Back when Cupano was the Chairman of the board from 2010 to 2012, he missed at least five board meetings, and participated remotely in one meeting via a "conference call."

The change in Cupano's status comes several months after this reporter offered to write a letter to Governor Chris Christie, asking him to replace Cupano.

The authority had the option of contacting Christie directly to urge him to replace the appointee who was missing in action, but they opted not to.

"Should any Board member have three (3) consecutive absences, the Board may direct that a statement be sent to that member’s appointing council, individual, or agency, advising them of this fact and requesting that a replacement be designated," reads the NBHA Board's bylaws.

"This number of absences may be extended by an affirmative vote of the Board, at any time, at the pleasure of the Chairperson."

However, when asked to sign on to a letter to the Governor, the NBHA Chairman claimed it was "not our responsibility."

"That's not our responsibility. If the state wants to appoint somebody, they have to do it," said Wolde.

Cupano's wife, Kathy Cupano, once served on the New Brunswick City Council, after upsetting the political establishment in the 1992 Democratic Party primary. She went on to serve as a Middlesex County Freeholder and now works for Rutgers University.

Despite not showing up at the meetings, Cupano still filed his required annual financial disclosure statement in April 2016.

According to the form, the Cupanos own two homes, one in New Brunswick and another in Point Pleasant, and he gets his income from a Hudson County company named Parkview Management Corp. as well as a state pension.