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Will Housing Authority ever get a new boss?

By Ron Leir

HARRISON –

For nearly two years the Harrison Housing Authority has been without the services of a permanent executive director and there’s no potential replacement in sight.

If anything, the HHA has moved backwards in its search for a new leader.

In May 2011, after having published a solicitation for applicants, and garnering more than 50, the HHA announced it was suspending the search after concluding that none of the candidates filled the bill.

Eventually, the authority re-opened the search with a revised set of criteria, deeming that “a minimum of five years required of progressively senior level experience in a public housing authority is essential” and specified a salary range “between $80,000 and $100,000” for the position.

Additionally, it noted that, “An ideal candidate will have completed the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Local Housing Authority Training Program; have a (B.A.) or advanced degree in public administration, finance, business; and have exceptional references from previous employers.”

Then, in January 2012, Mayor Ray McDonough and the Harrison Town Council put in their two cents with a letter to the HHA, urging them to look locally for a new director.

“Being a Town resident gave the past executive directors a unique insight into the workings of the Town as a whole and the needs of its residents,” said the letter, signed by the mayor and the seven council members. “We believe that the people of Harrison will be best served by the hiring of a Harrisonian. It is further our belief that someone who is not familiar with the unique characteristics of the Town of Harrison, and in fact may be from out of the State, will not be as effective as someone with intimate knowledge and experience.”

That advice, however, didn’t sit well with the HHA commissioners, whose chairwoman, Irene Almeida, fired off a steamy, three-page letter dated Jan. 20 to the governing body, telling them, in essence, to go stuff it.

Almeida reminded the town leaders that under federal law – which governs the HHA – “A Municipal residency requirement/ preference constitutes a discriminatory employment practice, in hiring for a position using Federal Funds and is therefore prohibited.”

Further, she added, “New Jersey also has prohibitions on employment discrimination. It is unlawful for the Housing Authority to place any limitations on the Executive Director position which could have the effect of negatively impacting or unfairly excluding certain groups, and could constitute employment discrimination. ….”

Even on the local level, Almeida pointed out, the Town of Harrison’s “own Municipal Code” affirms that, “Residency shall not be a factor in recruiting, selection, tenure or promotion of any employees.” That codification developed, she said, as the result of a diversity in employment complaint brought by the NAACP’s Newark branch against Harrison two decades ago.

Beyond the residency issue, Almeida continued, the HHA has to comply with the New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law which spells out various educational and vocational requirements, along with advertising criteria, for hiring an executive director.

Under those mandates, the HHA “… is prohibited from limiting its search to local candidates with access to (only) local media.

” Finally, Almeida suggests that the town butt out. “The Town of Harrison does not play a role in the employment or other decisions of the Housing Authority,” she writes. “The Housing Authority has not and will not accept or consider input from the Town regarding Housing Authority hiring decisions or employment matters. It is improper for anyone outside of the (HHA) Board of Commissioners to weigh in on Housing Authority employment matters. ….”

The letter’s insistence on the authority’s autonomy echoes a theme raised in a federal “whistleblower” lawsuit filed against the mayor, the town and a somewhat different lineup of HHA commissioners by Michael Rodgers after he was fired as the authority’s executive director in 2010. Rodgers claimed that the mayor instigated his firing after he refused to overlook the alleged drug use by an HHA employee. That case is still awaiting discovery. Many of the parties named in the lawsuit have been subpoenaed for depositions but none has yet taken place.

Meanwhile, the HHA got another batch of applicants for executive director in response to its second solicitation, only to end up with the same results. On May 2, through its Interim Executive Director Zinnerford Smith, the HHA notified all applicants that, “Unfortunately, circumstances beyond the control of the Housing Authority occurred during the process and the HHA has found it necessary to conclude the search at this time. … When the search resumes an advertisement will be issued.”

Asked to elaborate, Smith told The Observer: “The position will remain open until it’s filled. We felt it would be unfair to the applicants to have them in limbo status. It’s been well over four, five months (since the application submission cutoff).” The original deadline of Oct. 21, 2011, had been extended.

Why can’t the authority find an acceptable candidate? Smith said the screening committee, aided by a private search consultant, dutifully culled the applicants’ resumes and background, “short-listed them down to three,” but the HHA commissioners “didn’t select anybody.”

“Whenever we feel the agency is prepared again to consider applicants, we’ll readvertise,” Smith said.

Smith added that he’s not in the running for the job. “I have no intent or desire to be the permanent executive director,” he said, “although this is a high-performing agency that a (housing) professional should be considering as an opportunity for property management.

” On a related housing front, the town governing body voted April 3 to provide a letter of commitment supporting a proposal by The Domus Corp., a non-profit arm of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, to build an “affordable 15-unit apartment building for low income seniors” at 774 Harrison Ave. subject to N.J. Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (NJHMFA) requirements and loan documents.

The town pledged to apply “up to $650,000” from its Affordable Trust Fund to the project. Three of the 15 units would be earmarked for seniors “earning 30% of area median income” and the rest for seniors “earning less than 60% of median income.”

On June 6, the town reaffirmed its endorsement of the project, saying that that the project “meets or will meet an existing housing need.” It notes that Domus has established a corporate entity known as Harrison Senior Urban Renewal, LP, that has applied to the NJHMFA for 4% tax credits to help finance the project.

Beyond the money pledged by the town, the Hudson County HOME Investment Partnerships Act program has committed about $1.5 million in grant funds and the NJHMFA’s tax credits would amount to about $1.4 million, according to Domus President Phillip Frese.

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