The chairwoman of the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority strongly disagrees with Mayor Brett Dungan’s recent charge that it, along with the town’s Utilities Board, has been reluctant to share information with his administration. Dungan’s assessment of the two independent bodies was made during a plea for a community-wide “buy-in” published in the previous edition of this newspaper.
In a three-page letter, Marcia Stork, who was appointed to the Housing Authority by former Mayor Stan Wright, said “she cannot fathom” how Dungan can make the claim, after the Housing Authority has “gone to great lengths in an effort to develop a good working relationship with (Dungan) and his administration.”
The authority manages the 100-unit Safe Harbor housing development, which was paid for with FEMA funds after Hurricane Katrina and was the subject of a corruption trial resulting in Wright’s conviction and 15-month prison sentence. He remains incarcerated in Beaumont, Texas, with a scheduled release date in September.
“Upon Mayor Dungan’s election, I, along with Virginia Shanahan, Executive Director, and Darryl Wilson, former board member, met with Mayor Dungan and personally invited him out for a tour of the Housing Facility,” she wrote. “This request was repeated on multiple occasions and by other board members as well. To date the mayor has chosen not to accept our invitations.
“When the mayor was first elected, Wanda Overstreet, special appointed Assistant to the mayor, called the executive director and invited her, at the request of Mayor Dungan, to attend the first meeting of all department heads even though the Housing Authority does not fall under the umbrella of the city. Overstreet also stated the mayor requested a brief synopsis of Safe Harbor. The executive director attended the meeting Oct. 7, 2013, and provided a detailed document she created for the mayor, which described the history, operation, problems, goals, etc. of the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority. This document also contained a copy of all pertinent legal documents between the city of Bayou La Batre and the Housing Authority. She went well beyond what was requested and well beyond what is required, all in the spirit of cooperation.”
Dungan said while he does recognize the Housing Authority’s effort, the information Shanahan provided is not what he sought and was “highly editorialized.”
“I have indicated I am happy to meet with the Housing Authority, but they have always told me they have to have paid their staff members in attendance,” he said. “I don’t want to meet with the paid staff, I want to meet with the Housing Authority. It is a public body with a public trust whose job it is to basically oversee the actions of the paid staff members, not the other way around.”
The city is included as a defendant in a lawsuit between former Safe Harbor tenants and the Housing Authority, alleging it broke a promise to allow original tenants to purchase their homes. Darryl Wilson, who is currently the maintenance supervisor for the Housing Authority, is also involved in a civil lawsuit against the city, for actions the previous mayor took against him while he was a captain in the police department.
In further cooperation with the city, Stork wrote that on Jan. 6, the Housing Authority voluntarily returned documents to City Hall that were seized by the FBI as a part of its investigation into Wright. Stork said the Housing Authority also conflicted with the manner by which Dungan allegedly sought federal grant money.
“In a valiant effort to help the Housing Authority obtain some funds to repair some of the structural defects of many of the homes in Safe Harbor, Mayor Dungan applied for HUD funding granted to the county of Mobile,” she wrote. “Instead of a direct request, in writing, from his office seeking demographic information required for the grant application, the Mayor chose to send to the Housing Authority, on separate occasions, Wanda Overstreet and Tommy Reynoso, building inspector for the city of Bayou La Batre.”
Stork said during these visits, the Housing Authority’s staff made it “very clear” that because it operated like a conventional apartment complex rather than one which receives federal subsidies, it was not required, nor did it, keep any demographic information about its tenants. Further, because previous representatives of the city committed fraudulent acts with grants intended for the Housing Authority, Shanahan was “attempting to protect the Housing Authority from further legal dilemmas.”
Stork said in fact, when the Housing Authority made a public records request to the city to obtain a copy of previous grant agreements, it was the city, acting on orders of the mayor, that was reluctant to provide information. The authority has since obtained those grant agreements from another source. Stork concluded in her letter that based on conversations with other board members, Dungan intends to fire Shanahan and Wilson and replace them with people who worked on his campaign.
“It has been made clear to Mayor Dungan that this will not happen,” she wrote. “This staff has made miracles happen and the Board will not be complicit in helping the Mayor fulfill a campaign promise, continue what appears to be retaliation against Wilson, or stop the positive progress made at the Housing Authority.”
In the past, Lagniappe has detailed the financial performance of the Housing Authority. Prior to the publication of this article, Shanahan provided a financial report from January showing a total profit of $13,905.03 over a four-month period, compared to an average monthly loss of $9,088.98 in fiscal year 2011-2012. Shanahan claims in the nine months since her appointment as executive director, she has achieved $37,732 in savings from insurance and pest control.
“Were it not for the staff in this office, board members and our attorney working in unison and making those hard decisions and with the support and cooperation of most of our tenants, we would not have the successes that we do,” Shanahan said. “I am very proud of what we, as a team, have been able to accomplish in less than nine months. While we still have a long way to go and months will fluctuate based on circumstances, we are doing extremely well and we should all be very proud.”
But after a city council meeting Feb. 13, Dungan was steadfast.
“I’m not saying I have a problem with the board, I’m not saying I have a problem with the people,” he said. “I’m saying I don’t have any idea what the problem is because no one will talk to me. They are saying ‘we’re our own Housing Authority and we have total autonomy and we don’t even need you.’ Does that make any sense? You’re trying to run a business and two of your departments don’t want anything to do with you? What do you do in the private world? You get rid of the distractions. You fire the people and get someone else.”
Dungan suggested if the matter isn’t resolved beforehand, he would terminate the Housing Authority’s lease when it expires on Nov. 28, 2016. However, he faces re-election the same month.