November 21, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN And JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writers
Mayor Eddie A. Perez did as he promised, cleaning the slate at the board of the Hartford Housing Authority and appointing four new commissioners.
Perez announced the removal Monday of three authority commissioners he had asked to resign earlier this month, saying in letters to them that "under your oversight, the authority has failed to manage public funds in an efficient and appropriate manner."
Perez named four new commissioners, including one to fill an expired term. Among them is Mark Ojakian, the state's deputy comptroller.
"He laid out to me that he thought he needed a new direction for the board, a board that could be held accountable," Ojakian said. "It really wasn't a tough sell."
Monday's action was the latest development in a troubled three-month period for the authority, one that began in August when the board fired Lancelot Gordon Jr. as executive director.
Gordon was dismissed, the agency said, for failing to follow agency policies in nearly $11,000 worth of financial transactions. Gordon filed suit following his termination, denying the charges and saying he was fired because he was trying to resist deep-rooted corruption.
The three commissioners Gordon accused - Chairman Courtney Anderson, Vice Chairwoman Yolanda Castillo and Treasurer Angel Arce - denied the allegations, but local, state and federal officials are investigating.
In addition to Ojakian, Perez's new appointees are Raquel Rivera, the director of property management for Broad Park Development Corporation; William M. "Lew" Brown, a retired journalist, former resident of public housing and an unpaid adviser to the mayor; and Luis M. Vera, a case manager with the Puerto Rican Forum and a former Hartford detective.
Commissioner Mollie Shelton will remain in place until Perez finds a replacement, officials said. Perez also replaced Commissioner Winnifred Bennett, whose term had expired.
On Nov. 3, Perez asked for Anderson, Castillo and Arce to resign, but all three refused. The stalemate came to a head Friday when Perez held hearings for the commissioners' removal and all three declined to attend, calling the hearings an "inequitable sham."
To remove the commissioners, Perez focused not on the scandal but on the authority's sloppy reaction to two audits by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that identified an array of problems regarding the use of federal funds.
In Anderson's case, Perez said the chairman improperly had his cellphone bill paid by the authority, to the tune of roughly $1,200. Anderson has repeatedly said that the charges were legitimate reimbursements for public business on his private phone and were authorized by state statute.
In letters dated last Friday, Perez made his decision official.
"So he removed us, what you going to do?" Arce said Monday. "Life has to go on. ... This is something we were doing on a volunteer basis, and if this is the way you are going to be rewarded, with all these attacks when you do something on a volunteer basis, it is not worth it."
Anderson said he would continue to dispute the mayor's actions in a suit filed last week in state court. He also said his dismissal was politically motivated.
"The Latino community is obviously split on their feelings about the mayor, and I think he really needs the African American community's vote to secure his position as mayor," Anderson said. "He's probably trying to please them more than anyone."
But Anderson said the mayor is being used.
"Those same people that he trusts and has taken advice from are also gearing up and supporting other people who are going to eventually run against the mayor," he said.
Not so, said Clarke King, the head of the Greater Hartford African American Alliance.
"I think [Perez is] doing what he thinks is right," King said. But he's not earning any real political points just yet. "Because, personally, I think he has a long way to go."
Brown, who lived in Bellevue Square and calls himself a "product of public housing," said he is ready to serve.
"It sounds corny, but the city has been good to me," Brown said. "I believe in civic responsibility."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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