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Rick Kriseman removes three St. Petersburg housing agency board members for lax oversight

Lawrence Maxwell 0

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced he will remove three St. Petersburg Housing Authority board members, including Chairman Harry Harvey. Kriseman said the board has failed to properly oversee the agency. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Citing their failure to adequately oversee the city’s troubled housing agency, Mayor Rick Kriseman is removing three more members of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority governing board.

Chairman Harry Harvey, a board member since 1996, Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White will be given until Tuesday to resign, according to a memo Kriseman sent to city council members Friday. Failing that, they will be removed from office.

That means Kriseman will have replaced five of the seven-member board after he decided last month against reappointing Basha P. Jordan Jr., and Jo Ann Nesbitt to second terms.

Kriseman directed City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch to look into the performance of the board after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that it approved a 7 percent pay raise for agency CEO Tony Love in 2017 even though some board members said they hadn’t seen his evaluation.

The $10,000 jump, which increased Love’s annual salary to $150,000 in 2017, was awarded despite written reports from senior staffers that Love routinely shouted, belittled staff and was causing the agency to lose key experienced employees.

Another Times story found that Love lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families and used agency funds to pay for his furniture and electric bills. That led to the agency being cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing low-income housing.

"Based on the City Attorney’s thorough review of information and records, we have concluded that the three remaining commissioners neglected to engage in necessary due diligence," Kriseman said in an email. "My hope is the commissioners choose to resign so that we can begin the process of forging a new chapter for the Housing Authority as soon as possible.”

But the move could set up a legal battle with the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. Its president, Maria Scruggs, previously said removing board members would be an "abuse of power" and warned that her group may challenge the city in court. All seven members of the housing board are black.

"The St. Petersburg Branch NAACP has reached out to the Florida State Conference NAACP for permission and guidance on taking formal action on this matter and will not be issuing any further statements regarding Mayor Kriseman’s actions until receiving that guidance and authorization," Scruggs said in a text message Monday.

As mayor, Kriseman recommends board members to city council, which approves the appointments. The agency is otherwise autonomous and board members, who serve on a voluntary basis, provide the only oversight.

State law allows a mayor to remove board members for "inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office." The mayor must provide a copy of the "charges" at least 10 days prior to giving the board member an opportunity to be heard in person or by counsel. As of Monday afternoon, the city had not received any resignations.

Kriseman’s decision to essentially remake the board comes after a series of controversies at the troubled housing agency.

Community leaders, including Pinellas County School Board chair Rene Flowers, say Love forced residents out of the Jordan Park housing complex before the agency had money lined up for its redevelopment. In May, the City Council refused to provide a letter of support for the agency’s plan to demolish and replace a section of Jordan Park known as the Historic Village

Love also has faced criticism for planning to charge a board member $900 to review agency records and a plan for him and top staff to get a slice of any development fees from the construction of new public housing. The agency later backed down from both those ideas.

Kriseman’s decision will end Harvey’s 23-year tenure on the housing board. Neither he nor Davis returned calls seeking comment.

Sherman White could not be reached for comment. Records show that she missed six of 13 board meetings in 2018, including three consecutive meetings. Under Housing Authority bylaws, that would rise to the level of "excessive absences" and would ordinarily be grounds for the board to recommend her removal.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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