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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Another board member has quit what is the third-worst housing authority in the United States, according to federal government’s Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS).
Frank Simpson officially resigned from the embattled New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) Board of Commissioners on March 17, leaving them without a required member who is also a resident of the agency’s housing.
Since 1998, HUD has required housing authority boards to include at least one person who is a resident of a federally-subsidized housing unit.
Simpson lives in Providence Square II, a senior citizen building on Harvey Street owned by Philadelphia-based Pennrose Properties, as part of a partnership with the NBHA.
Without Simpson on board any longer, the NBHA cancelled its March public meeting, just one of eleven typically scheduled each year.
Edna Otero, a Board of Education employee and resident of a subsidized rental unit on Edgeworth Place, was appointed by the City Council to replace Simspon.
She appeared to arrive with, and leave her first board meeting with Mayor’s aide Kevin Jones, a longtime NBHA board member.
Otero did not return to the board’s May meeting, and it’s unclear if she will be back in June.
Trouble filling this position is just one of many problems piling up at the NBHA, which has also been caught overcharging its tenants, and repeatedly fallen behind on its own promises to respond to legally-binding public records requests.
It’s also felt the budget crunch of decreased federal funding, and exacerbated it by spending steep sums on lawyer bills.
Even holding public meetings has proven to be a challenge for the agency, one that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development categorized as “troubled.”
In many ways, the NBHA appears to be stuck in the past, or at least past its prime.
Their website touts two “current” issues of a community newsletter: one from January 2003, and the other from March 2003.
The agency’s most recent press release available is from 2008, and the most recent budget on their website is from the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015.
No meeting minutes are available from any meetings since July 2016, a clear violation of a state law requiring such information to be made public by authorities.
In February, the NBHA promised it would soon have a “retreat” to discuss big-picture issues, and that it will be open to the public. Originally set for March, no retreat has been scheduled as of June.
For even longer, the NBHA has promised to produce some sort of report on what led to tenants being charged twice the normal rate for “improper parking” fines.
After New Brunswick Today first brought the matter to the authority’s attention in 2015, thousands of dollars were refunded to the shortchanged tenants of the 70-year-old public housing neighborhood affected by the overzealous ticketing.
Still, more than a year after promising a report on the fiasco, what remained of the NBHA board at their May 23 meeting appeared to be clueless about it.
At that meeting, Board Chairman Yirgu Wolde abruptly left without explanation, just before the public comment section of the agenda began.
Questioned about Wolde’s departure, board members didn’t seem to have an answer at first.
“He said he had something to go to,” said Vice Chairman Anthony Giorgianni, while board member Dale Caldwell claimed there was “an emergency.”
Then, faced with questions about the promised report on the parking scandal, everyone including the agency’s Executive Director, John Clarke, passed the buck to the absent Chairman.
“Well, actually, Mr. Wolde would have been the Chair on that,” said Clarke, and the board quickly said that it would have to wait until the next meeting.
“I’m not saying it’s not ready,” said Giorgianni. “He’s not here, so don’t say that the report’s not ready. It could be ready.”
Previously, the report was delayed because Wolde and a chronically-absent board member were the only two members of the so-called “Operations Committee.”
As we reported, the NBHA Board of Commissioners has frequently struggled to get enough of its members in the same room for its monthly meetings, let alone committee meetings, which are almost non-existent.
All of this, even as city officials proclaimed that the board did not suffer from “weak membership” in an effort to justify the agency’s continued existence.
Board meetings were cancelled five times since May 2015, and Governor Chris Christie has failed for more than seven years to appoint a representative to the board, as required by law.
Housing Authority boards in New Jersey have five members appointed by the City Council, one member appointed by the Mayor, and one more appointed by the Governor.
As we reported, Anthony Cupano, who was appointed by Christie’s predecessor Jon Corzine, stopped attending board meetings years ago, and missed 38 straight meetings before officially resigning last summer.
In March, Simpson became the fourth member to leave the seven-member board in less than two years, part of a pattern that began with this newspaper exposing that one of the board’s members was not complying with a city ordinance that required him to live in New Brunswick.
The NBHA operates more than 300 public housing units in different areas of New Brunswick, in addition to a “Section 8” housing voucher program, consisting of 903 vouchers.
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.
But 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 like New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO).
Other towns in the area maintain separate redevelopment authorities and housing authorities. Here, New Brunswick struggles to maintain a single agency to handle both responsibilities.
Clarke, the authority’s Executive Director, apparently owns a business with the son of DEVCO’s Chairman. And back when Chairman George Zoffinger was a government worker, Clarke was his driver, according to several sources.
Clarke has frequently helped fast-track DEVCO’s plans for massive developments.
The agency’s criss-crossing purposes were put on full display at the May 24 meeting where board member Dale Caldwell articulated that the NBHA board was “here to represent both the residents and the developers.”
Minutes later, when questioned by this reporter, Caldwell denied ever making the statement.
“I don’t think I said developers,” said Caldwell. “No, I didn’t say that. Check your tape.”
Caldwell, who also serves as the President of the New Brunswick Board of Education, is actually one of the sharper members on the all-volunteer NBHA board.
While BOE members must win elections to keep their seats, Housing Authority Board members are required to take a training class and pass an exam within 18 months of their appointment.
Simpson’s resignation came just as he was about the reach the 19-month mark since he was appointed, and 18 months since his first board meeting.
New Brunswick Today asked about whether or not Simpson had met the requirements to continue serving at the board’s February 22 meeting, where Simpson was absent.
“I have to look at it. I don’t have that information with me,” said Clarke, who has held the top position at the agency for fifteen years.
In the wake of the resignation, we asked Clarke why Simpson quit.
“His [resignation] letter did not state a reason,” was all Clarke had to say.
Simpson was part of a duo that joined the NBHA board in the wake of the initial shakeup in August 2015, after both he and Cesar Ovando were appointed by the City Council, who admitted they were following the lead of Mayor James Cahill.
“I wouldn’t appoint him if I didn’t think he was going to do a good job,” said Councilman Kevin Egan, defending the appointments at the time.
In an interview with NBToday, Cahill called Simpson a “longtime New Brunswick resident” who was “familiar with the city,” and added that he was “also was involved in his own company for a number of years, involved in construction and those things, which can be helpful for the Housing Authority as well.”
But Simpson was conspicuously absent from the February board meeting, the first that he would have been inelgible to participate in if he had not passed the tests.
And by March, he was gone for good.
It’s been a tough job leading the embattled agency, as budget cuts and complacency at Clarke’s agency left many of its apartment units in disrepair, and many of its managerial divisions dysfunctional.
According to their most recent PHAS ranking, the authority scored a 41 out of 100. Only two housing authorities scored worse: Irvington’s and Gary, Indiana’s
And it hasn’t gotten any easier with New Brunswick Today sniffing around the agency that previously enjoyed little scrutiny.
This newspaper’s 2015 series, dubbed “New Brunswick Housing Authority Shenanigans,” won an investigative award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.
NBToday also started recording the board’s meetings on video, and sharing those videos with the public on our YouTube channel.
When they do have enough members to meet and the camera is rolling, sparks often fly between this reporter and certain members.
As we reported, the public meetings can often devolve into yelling or arguing over hot-button topics like water contamination and financial malfeasance.
The added scrutiny has also helped expose problems at the agency including questionable overtime expenses, a hostile work environment, conflicted legal counsel, and the parking fines scheme.
Each of the scandals have made it harder for the board to keep up appearances, but the agency is still far from transparent.
After the NBHA repeatedly violated the state’s Open Public Records Act, this reporter sued the authority in February 2016 and eventually won, forcing them to release some records and pay legal fees.
In one part of the case, the authority claimed the public record requested, just a few hours of surveillance video footage, had been deleted in a situation that the county’s Assignment Judge called “untenable.”
Yet, despite getting burned by the lawsuit, it’s still like pulling teeth to get records that should be made public from the agency.
Given half of an entire calendar year, the authority has been unable to produce records to show payments it has reaped from a small handful of interlocal and shared services agreements with other public agencies over a 2-year period.
Indeed, the agency is again in violation of the OPRA statute, and risking another lawsuit by failing to meet their own stated timelines for the production of public documents.
In just one example of their violations, the authority has repeatedly asked for extensions to provide a copy of a single parking permit application, a document that NBToday believes might reveal how the son of NBHA’s property manager Andrea Eato-White is able to park in the Schwartz-Robeson neighborhood.
Under OPRA, government entities are required to respond to all requests within seven business days.
Though agencies are permitted to ask for extensions to provide requested records, or do additional research into what can be released, NBT has never encountered any delays this extensive.
The request for a copy of the parking permit application was first made on October 6, 2016.
After requesting a 30-day extension, the NBHA did not respond for 41 days, when they requested a second 30-day extension.
Then, 63 days later, on January 30, a third 30-day extension was requested. This reporter shamed the board in public, demanding a response at back-to-back NBHA meetings, and brought the matter to the attention of the City Council.
On March 1, a fourth thirty-day extension was requested, only to be followed by radio silence for the next 55 days.
On April 26, the authority requested an additional fifteen days to provide the application. On May 11, they requested another fifteen days, only to again break their promised timeline for producing the public record.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.