Though former Mayor Sam Jones ran up against the political rocks while trying to reappoint members to the Industrial Development Board before he left office, he did not have similar problems re-upping the terms of three Mobile Housing Board commissioners last summer before he left the 10th floor of Government Plaza.
Because state law says the mayor alone appoints members to the Housing Board, Jones was able to essentially keep the current members in control of the area’s public housing until August of 2016. The move effectively blocked new-mayor Sandy Stimpson from choosing any of his own additions to the board until next August, and Stimpson appointees would not have a majority on the board until August 2016, should he choose to replace current members.
Jones’ reappointments might not raise any eyebrows if they had come as each commissioner’s five-year term expired. But during his eight years in office, according to records from the Mobile City Clerk’s Office, Jones only made reappointments once before this past summer, and not as each individual term expired. Board terms are for five years and are staggered so they expire at different times.
At various times during Jones’ term in office, each of the five Housing Board members’ terms expired, often for many years, according to City Clerk’s records. One spot on the board also remained vacant for more than a year until it was filled after Jones lost the election, according to the clerk’s records.
Currently the board is made up of Chairman Clarence Ball, Vice-Chairman Donald Langham, Residents Council Member Ruby Lang, Rev. Melvin Clark and Norman Hill. Ball has been on the board since 1990, Clark since 1992, Langham since 1993, Lang since 2000 and Hill since September of this year.
On Aug. 15 of this year, Jones reappointed Clark and Langham to the Housing Board. Both had just been reappointed less than two years earlier in February 2011, according to City Clerk’s records. Prior to that, Clark hadn’t been reappointed since March 2004 and Langham hadn’t been since September 1998, meaning both of their terms were expired for at least a couple of years. In Langham’s case, his term expired while Mike Dow was still mayor. According to those same records, Clark’s present term will expire Aug. 31, 2017 and Langham’s will expire Aug. 31, 2018.
Ball was last reappointed in February 2011 and his present term will expire Aug. 31, 2015. Prior to 2011 he had not been reappointed since he originally came on the board in 1990, according to the clerk’s records. Lang also was reappointed in February 2011 and will serve through Aug. 31, 2014. Previously she had not been reappointed since she first came on the board in 2000, meaning her term was expired for about six years.
Hill’s appointment came to fill the spot of Tony Cooper, who left the board sometime within the past couple of years. In an interview earlier in the year, Cooper could not recall exactly when he had resigned from the board. According to City Clerk’s records, Cooper had a term that expired in 2001 but continued to serve until he left in the past couple of years. Hill was appointed Sept. 19 of this year, after Jones had lost the election.
The issue of board appointments came up earlier this year when Jones tried to push through the reappointment of four members of the Industrial Development Board prior to leaving office. The move came in October during Jones’ lame duck time in office, but it did not go through because some City Council members blocked the effort saying Stimpson should have the right to make the appointments when he became mayor.
Contacted for this story, Jones said he made the reappointments this summer simply because those three board members’ terms were expired. He said it was something that could have been done sooner but his office had not been aware of the issue. However, all four members had been reappointed in 2011, records show.
Jones also said the city also could have run into difficulties with HUD if the board members were not reappointed in a timely fashion. As for the length of time Cooper’s former spot was open, Jones said he had difficulty finding someone with an interest in serving on the board, so it took some time.
While the Stimpson administration has not specifically expressed any desire to see MHB take a new direction, the mayor certainly talked during the election about the need to improve the prospects for areas of town where failing housing projects dominate the landscape. If Stimpson wants to see a change in what’s happening at the MHB, the question remains as to whether the board members would share his vision. As most have been there a considerable amount of time and also noting that Chairman Clarence Ball has been one of Sam Jones’ biggest political contributors over the years, the political realities might make it tough for the new mayor.
Asked whether Jones’ late reappointments to the MHB were viewed as troublesome by the mayor’s office, spokesman George Talbot simply said Stimpson is examining the situation.
“We are conducting a comprehensive review of all city boards and commissions, including the Mobile Housing Board. As part of that review, we are evaluating the current status of board members and the performance of those boards. Once that review is completed, we’ll begin the process of identifying candidates for vacant seats or for members whose terms have expired,” Talbot said.
The state of MHB
Like most housing authorities across the country, MHB is currently dealing with issues of sequestration and proration from the federal government hamstringing it financially. Director Dwayne Vaughn says as a result of that, MHB does not yet have a set budget for 2014, although he is hopeful that will soon be rectified.
“Even so, subject to federal appropriations, sequestration and HUD prorations, MHB hopefully anticipates that it will have total budget resources of approximately $40.5 million for its various programs,” Vaughn said.
MHB has been dealing with the shuttering and relocation of residents from the Josephine Allen Homes a few years ago, as well as the current degradation of the Roger Williams Homes. Josephine Allen sits now like a ghost town on the city’s northern edge, while just a few miles away Roger Williams is a hodgepodge of burned out buildings mixed with a few habitable homes.
Vaughn says there were plans for Josephine Allen’s demolition and rebuilding, but a reordering of federal flood plains maps made them impossible. Similarly, he hopes to see the Williams homes demolished and the areas not in a flood plain redeveloped, but nothing is yet solid. A new plan for the demolition of the Allen homes is currently in front of HUD, he said, and he hopes it will be approved next year.
The loss of residents at the Allen homes means a loss of income for MHB as well since occupancy helps determine how much money HUD sends. For example, Vaughn said in 2012, HUD subsidies for the Allen homes was $1.6 million, falling to $715,000 for 2013 and roughly $378,000 next year. The 2014 funds will go for maintaining the property, Vaughn said.
While Vaughn points to the successes he says MHB has had with resident economic and lifestyle independence, particularly in the Renaissance Corridor off of Beauregard Street, he also says the condition of many MHB facilities is an issue.
“MHB believes that many of its housing communities are in need of substantial physical and capital improvement and repositioning. Mobile has some of the oldest housing stock in the State of Alabama and many MHB developments are more than 50-plus years old and are obsolete,” Vaughn said. “MHB is actively seeking to finalize plans for the repositioning or other improvement of each of the communities and then will be seeking financing to help bring these dreams to reality. The situation with the housing stock is one of the direst needs of MHB.”
One area where Housing Board commissioners also have sway is over Mobile Development Enterprises. This non-profit entity owned and operated by the Housing Board has raised eyebrows for a number of reasons over the past year.
First, many former Housing Board employees and positions have been moved under the control of MDE, taking them outside the oversight of the Mobile County Personnel Board and the merit system. MDE employees have also been put in charge of managing MHB employees, despite their legal status as a separate entity. But while MDE has drastically increased its number of employees over the past few years, on paper it is bleeding red ink.
MDE is operated from the Housing Board offices and is run by Vaughn as its director and has Ball and Langham as chairman and vice chairman. Though Vaughn says MDE is independent of the Housing Board, financial records make it difficult to understand how it could possibly be paying employees from its own resources.
When Langhan was contacted for an earlier story on MDE, he at first expressed ignorance of what it was. Eventually he came to recognize MDE, but said it was something rarely discussed, perhaps occasionally at the end of a regular MHB meeting. Meanwhile tax records indicate MDE moved from having 18 employees and a payroll of $973,000 in 2010 to 72 employees in 2011 and a payroll of around $725,000 and a total operating loss of $582,000.
MDE primarily does work for the Housing Board, although Vaughn has said they hope to branch out in the future to work for other entities.