After a somewhat contentious and at times confusing special-called meeting Monday, June 26, the Mobile Housing Board of Commissioners offered the job of executive director to George Lee Byers.
Byers (pictured above), who most recently worked as director of the Bridgeport Housing Authority in Connecticut, was approved 3-1 by the board. Commissioner Melvin Clark abstained from the vote because he had not been involved in the interview process. Commissioner Reid Cummings voted against Byers after his own choice, Akinola Popoola, was voted down by the same margin.
While three of four commissioners ranked Popoola higher than Byers, Popoola did not respond to supplemental questions following his face-to-face meeting with the board last week. Although the additional questionnaire was delivered June 20, Popoola reportedly didn’t receive it until Friday, June 23. His responses weren’t received by Monday morning, leaving commissioners to question whether the current head of the Opelika Housing Authority really wanted the job.
“Would it have been appropriate to get some kind of confirmation he wanted the job?” Commissioner Norman Hill asked board staff members.
Hill speculated Popoola may have been deterred by a one-year work test period that would be implemented for the job by the Mobile County Personnel Board. Board attorney Raymond Bell said following the test period, the executive director could be approved by the board. The salary range for the position was not discussed at the meeting, but whoever completes the test period may receive a slight pay increase after board approval, Bell said.
While Cummings said all three of the candidates were qualified for the job, he preferred Popoola because he was “head and shoulders above the other two candidates” when it came to experience and also has a strong relationship with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“He knows how to get things done,” Cummings said, adding that the board should restart the search if Popoola wasn’t selected as leader.
Other commissioners said they felt troubled by Popoola’s lack of response to the questionnaire. Commissioner Norman Hill said there was no doubt Popoola’s experience and contacts made him an attractive candidate, but added he thinks Byers and Popoola “had equal talent” for the job.
“It concerns me, [Popoola’s] lack of a response,” Hill said. “I can’t imagine — here it is Monday morning, a week later, and we’re still struggling.”
Commissioner Joyce Freeman had Byers ranked above Popoola from the start.
“I feel Mr. Byers can hit the ground running,” she said. “I feel like he is the person we need for the Mobile Housing Board. I think he’s the right man for the job.”
If he accepts the job, Byers will replace board CFO and acting Executive Director Lori Shackelford. Shackelford was named interim director after Dwayne Vaughn stepped down from the position in January.
Byers himself resigned as executive director of the Bridgeport Housing Authority in July 2016 after what was described as a spat with the city’s mayor, according to reporting in The Connecticut Post. He had been hired in October 2014, The Post reports, and was given a severance equal to $175,000 in salary and benefits.
Byers was hired in Bridgeport after the housing authority there was deemed “troubled” by HUD, The Post reports. Mobile Housing Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Kimberly Pettway has said the group would be looking for a candidate with experience in dealing with a struggling authority.
With MHB, Byers would also have a lot on his plate. In addition to dealing with a conversion to the Rental Assistance Demonstration — which places public housing properties under HUD’s voucher program but also allows the board to take out loans — the board will also have to navigate the transformation while under the watchful eye of the federal agency after it was recently cited for a conflict of interest involving a contract for make-ready work dating back to 2011.
While the board eventually settled on Byers, there was some initial confusion as it was discovered that staff members — as is customary with MHB — hadn’t checked his professional references before the vote was cast. Bell told commissioners staff would begin calling references and sending responses to the board for review.
Cummings and Pettway said they felt the way the staff handled the references was “backwards.”
“The presumption is we’ve already called these people,” Cummings said. “I’m surprised we haven’t.”
Pettway called it a misstep, but wanted to continue to move forward. She added the board specifically asked staff to call the references before the vote.
“I’ve never, ever seen such a practice,” she said, referring to calling references after agreeing to hire a candidate.
Pettway acknowledged staff fears of affecting a candidate’s current employment, but added that the candidates, in this scenario, provided the references.
“We’re a little bit annoyed at the process, I know I am, Pettway said. “It just seems a little messy.”
The board had intended to vote this week on a contract to demolish Roger Williams Homes, but plans have not yet been finalized. Bell said it would be a few weeks out. The board tabled the vote.
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