The local agency that manages more than 230 low-income housing units in the two Princetons lost its executive director to another municipality earlier this year, but then turned around and hired him back through his new boss for just 10 hours a week, but at about 75 percent of his previous salary.
This summer, Scott Parsons resigned as the executive director of the Princeton Housing Authority to take a higher paying job with the Lakewood Housing Authority in Ocean County as their assistant executive director.
This fall the Princeton Housing Authority board then hired Parsons back to run the authority through a one-year shared services agreement with the Lakewood Housing Authority, which is headed by Mary Jo Grauso, a former Princeton housing Authority director who made headlines in 2007 for giving no-bid contracts to her boyfriend.
Some of the members of the Princeton Housing Authority board praised the contract with Lakewood as a way to save money for Princeton.
But Lakewood is an hour’s drive from Princeton, in Ocean County, and the Princeton Housing Authority board agreed to pay the agency $65,000 a year for 10 hours of work a week, with not all of the work done on site. Parsons’ former salary with the Princeton Housing Authority was $87,500.
The housing authority board voted twice on the contract with Lakewood because Borough Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad, a newly assigned liaison to the housing authority who has no voting rights on the authority, questioned the process and the validity of the contract, which was voted on at a special meeting in September.
In response to her concerns, the board took a second vote, unanimously approving the contract again at a meeting held Oct. 26.
But review by Planet Princeton of public notices filed in the borough clerk’s office shows that the two meetings was not properly noticed under the state’s Sunshine Law, which requires public bodies to give notice of public meetings, in this case by sending a notice to the borough clerk and having it posted in borough hall in addition to having it published in a local newspaper.
The housing authority board notified the clerk of all its regular meetings for the year, but it appears that the board has not been submitting notices when it adds or changes meeting dates. The first meeting where the contract was approved in September was a special executive session that was not on the authority’s original schedule. The October meeting was also not on the original schedule.
Normally the authority meets the third Tuesday of the month but postponed the October meeting a week without posting the time change on its website or submitting a notice to the borough clerk. A Planet Princeton reporter showed up at the regularly scheduled October meeting only to find the doors locked, and only knew about the rescheduled meeting because a board member told her.
At the Oct. 26 housing authority meeting, board members argued that the board properly adopted the contract at the Sept. 26 special meeting under the authority’s bylaws. But Trelstad questioned the process of approving the contract and a companion resolution that was drafted later.
“I find a little unusual, Trelstad said of the contract process. “This is certainly not the way the borough does business. I’d like my concern recorded int he minutes as the liaison to borough council.”
The board’s solution was to take a second vote.
“We have our own bylaws that you might want to read,” was the response from board member David DeGeorge, who said the board had to take action because the authority was without a director otherwise.
Linda Sipprelle, a new member to the housing authority’s board appointed by the state, also expressed concerns about the process.
” A lot of things were done via e-mail, in a very rushed manner,” she said. “Usually in government there is more consensus building, with everyone on same page at the same time. I know the circumstances are unusual in this case, but as Barbara said, a certain protocol fell through the cracks.”
Leighton Newlin, head of the board, said he wrote to DCA about the shared services agreement and received a written opinion from the state Department of Community Affairs legitimizing the contract.
“The letter clearly states that we have not entered in to any agreement we are not able to enter in to,” Newlin said of outsourcing the director’s position to Lakewood through a shared services agreement.
“I wonder if they even read it,” joked DeGeorge.
Since entering in to the shared services agreement, the board has not taken any steps to begin the search for a new director. It is not clear when the housing authority will start the search. The board can end the contract with Lakewood by giving a certain number of days notice.
Newlin could not be reached for comment on the shared services agreement, the timeframe for the search for a new permanent director, or the Sunshine Law issue.
E-mails obtained by Planet Princeton show Newlin expressed interest in the executive director’s job. But board members must be off the board for at least a year before they can take a job with the agency.
“During the discussion between members of the board I indicated interest in the position of Executive Director should Scott decide to take the offer from the Lakewood Housing Authority,” reads an e-mail from Newlin to Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman. “I also shared the information with Scott when we talked. Scott brainstormed about his decision over the weekend and the impact it would have on the housing authority and came back with an idea that made sense. It was a shared services agreement between HABOP and Lakewood HA that would in effect would have Scott remain in a leadership position here in Princeton for a period of time to provide continuity and operational integrity.
“Quite frankly the HABOP now functions better that it has at any time since I’ve been on the board,” Newlin wrote. “Most if not all the board felt the shared services agreement was a great idea…a win win situation…one that made fiscal sense, worked well, and was in the best interest of HABOP…The shared services agreement is not a new concept and has been used in consolidating management of smaller housing authorities. Diane Johnson, HUD Regional Director whole Scott talked with, thought it was a great idea and gave her endorsement. The agreement would allow Scott to continue to provide leadership and management of the HABOP giving us the opportunity to see how things worked out while the board considered how best to move forward.”
The Princeton Housing Authority, established in 1938 to provide housing for lower income residents, is regulated by the Federal Department of Housing (HUD) And the state Department of Community Affairs. A board of seven commissioners, five appointed by the Princeton Borough Council, one by the Borough Mayor, and one by the Department of Community Affairs, is responsible for oversight of the authority.
Staff members at the authority include an administrative assistant, a housing operations manager, a book keeper/leasing assistant, a maintenance supervisor , three maintenance mechanics and a janitor. The housing authority owns and manages more than 230 family and senior/disabled low-income units within five developments in the two Princetons, including Redding Circle and Karin Court in the township, and Lloyd Terrace on Spruce Circle, Hageman Homes on Clay Street and the Maple/Franklin apartments in the borough.
In October, a construction project at the authority’s Clay Street Learning Center came to an abrupt halt. At an authority board meeting in October, Councilwoman Trelstad raised concerns about why the project had stopped and said it was her understanding that the contractor did not get the proper permits.
Parsons responded by claiming that the Hoboken contractor did apply for the proper permits.
But according to officials at borough hall, the contractor had not applied for the proper permits. A housing inspector determined work was being done without the permits. The work was halted, the contractor had to apply for the proper permits and pay a fine before work could start again, Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi said.
Two women have also attended board meetings challenging the eviction process.