Virtually anything is possible at the moment in the contract dispute between Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Director Al Ewing and the CHA Board.
Last Thursday afternoon, Ewing and his attorney, Denzil McKenzie, told the Record that they were taking the surprising step of filing a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court’s Civil Division in an attempt to get a final verdict on whether or not Ewing has a valid contract going forward as the Agency’s director.
“We’ve simply asked the court to do what it does best,” said Attorney McKenzie, of Boston’s McKenzie & Associates. “We thought it would be appropriate to rely on the court in a situation such as this to sort out the depth of it…We’re not pointing our finger at anyone. They have a position and we have a position. We think we have an agreement and they don’t think we have an agreement…It was a one-way negotiation. They gave us nothing to work with. We’re all grown ups and it is not the first time in our lives someone told us we had nothing when we believed we had something.”
While those on Ewing’s side felt they had no other options, those on the Board were absolutely taken by storm with the move towards litigation. So much so that Board Chair Tom Standish said some kind of action would be taken at the Board’s Monthly meeting on Wednesday night – a meeting whose results came too late for the Record. That meeting will follow an emergency meeting called last Friday in which the Board discussed the surprising turn of events in executive session.
“No, we didn’t expect this at all and, in fact, it came as a complete surprise,” said Standish. “I don’t know what will happen at the meeting. It will depend on the Board ratifying a position and whether he accepts it. He could resign, but we want to keep him. If we wanted to get rid of him, when the state said he didn’t have a valid contract, we’d have said, ‘Sorry, see you later.’ We have tried hard and he has not reciprocated. It’s very disheartening and frustrating he chose to go to court.”
The immediate source of the problem is a contract that the Board and state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) officials say is invalid and hasn’t been approved, as Standish referenced above.
Naturally, Ewing completely disagrees and points out that, though it was ratified by the former Board in what was termed as a hurry-up process in the wake of the disgraced former executive director’s exit, it was given the green light by Judith Weber – the state-appointed receiver who took over the CHA last fall in the midst of complete turmoil.
Weber’s tacit approval of the contract seemed to pave the way for Ewing to lead the Agency forward. That was the understanding until the new Board’s first meeting, in March, where everyone was surprised by a last-minute vote calling for Ewing’s contract to be re-opened and, possibly, re-negotiated.
In April, state officials weighed in on the matter, saying in no uncertain terms that they wanted the Board to come up with a new contract, and that they had not and would not approve the existing contract.
Behind the scenes in the whole battle is the giant pink elephant in the room, former Director Michael McLaughlin. Ewing served in the administration under McLaughlin and most everyone wants to know what Ewing knew in the years he worked for McLaughlin and whether or not he was complicit in the misgivings that were going on at the CHA. The ante on that question is raised substantially given the quick nature in which Ewing was picked and in which his contract was ratified.
That is the one thing that no one is discussing out in the open, on the record, from the state to the local level. It’s a question that has not been answered and will only be answered when the state and federal investigation of the CHA becomes public, though it is extremely important to note that Ewing appears not to be the subject of any ongoing investigation or accusations.
Ewing, for his part, points to the work he has done at the agency since taking the reins last fall – helping to rebuild what was broken and instituting several new programs and procedures.
There is the success of the new Tenant Councils, new pest control procedures, an unprecedented open door policy with residents at CHA headquarters, and new state/federal grants to improve resident safety.
And, in the end, Ewing’s side indicates that an allegedly corrupt boss does not make a corrupt employee.
“He is a man who is up to the job and is now doing the job,” said McKenzie. “We don’t believe it’s fair to Mr. Ewing to be tarred and feathered because he had a bad head of the agency. No one has even alleged he did anything wrong and he shouldn’t be required to carry the burden because he was on the job when bad things happened.”
Going beyond who knew what and when they knew it, the practical issues are pretty basic.
The nuts and bolts of Ewing’s current contract are that he gets $135,000 per year for five years. He also has a termination clause in which he can only be removed if he gives 30 days notice to the Board – perhaps indicating that the Board cannot remove him.
Standish said that the Board offered Ewing $115,000 per year in a two-year contract, with a one-year renewal clause, and they revised the termination clause to be more in line with what they believe is the standard.
“We’re interested in having him stay, but he has rejected everything we have done,” said Standish. “We’ve gone a long way from the $85,000 per year salary recommended by DHCD. Five years is not what a first-year executive director gets. It’s really all up to him. He’s been given a more than reasonable contract. Five years with no provision for dismissal and a salary of $135,000 is where he stands. That’s their legal position. It’s startling he would take such a position as his last offer.”
Naturally, Ewing felt that the discussions were going nowhere, and he chose to exercise his rights in a court of law.
“We’ve simply changed the venue for the discussion,” said McKenzie. “They do not believe the contract is valid and we do.”
The CHA Board members were actually waiting for Ewing to come back with a compromise offer, and had full confidence that he would do so and the matter would be worked out.
Now, Standish said everything is up in the air for the Board, and they are still charged by the state with negotiating an acceptable contract.
“It’s up to us to exercise our fiduciary responsibilities and get a contract which is acceptable to DHCD,” said Standish. “They have the final word here.”
There is no timeline for the lawsuit, and civil cases such as this can drag out for much longer periods than expected. Of course, both sides can come to an agreement at any point in the process.