Just when things seemed to be settling down at the Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) with a new Board in place and a new day dawning, controversy has erupted over an all-too-familiar subject – the salary of the executive director.
Last fall, former Executive Director Michael McLaughlin resigned after it was discovered he was making an exorbitant sum of more than $300,000 per year.
As the new Board’s first meeting was winding down a little over a week ago, the conversation switched to something a little unexpected. Several members indicated that they wanted to re-open new Executive Director Al Ewing’s contract and see if it was really acceptable.
The request by three Board members – who apparently had discussed the matter previously – took at least two of the members by surprise. Others in the room were also caught a little off guard.
After more than an hour of discussion, the Board voted to send a letter to the state requesting that they disapprove the existing contract with Ewing and re-open it for discussion and negotiation.
Apparently, there were a majority who felt it might be too good a deal, a deal negotiated and approved by the former Board – all of whom resigned and many of whom are now under investigation by the state.
The surprise came in that a good number of people in City government and state government felt that the CHA was in good hands with Ewing, and that he was ready to lead the Authority forward under his existing contract.
Even the former receiver for the CHA, Judith Weber, indicated that Ewing’s contract was “appropriate,” though she didn’t completely endorse it.
On Monday, the Board held another meeting and voted on specific language contained in a letter that was to be sent to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
The language of that letter was pretty blunt.
“The Board of the CHA would like to revisit said contract,” read the letter. “Under [state law], the Board of the CHA requests that DHCD disapprove said contract in the form that it was presented to DHCD for approval by our predecessor Board.”
Apparently at issue is what has become an old iron anchor for the CHA – executive pay.
“I was surprised by the discussion as well, but after looking and reviewing – as treasurer – the compensation package, I found it’s quite extravagant as it stands,” said Taverna. “Not knowing what other housing authorities get, I couldn’t tell you if that’s out of line until I review some other statistics from other housing authorities…It seems to fall in the top 1 percent of housing authorities and that would cause anyone anywhere to want to look at it. I didn’t know this until I looked at it…Less than 1 percent have that kind of package and I don’t know if the CHA is in that category…but we’ll find out.”
Board Chairman Tom Standish said there were several concerns with Ewing’s contract, including compensation, terms and the way it was hurriedly approved by the previous Board.
“Obviously we’ve come in under unusual circumstances and want to make sure everything is on an even keel,” he said. “The obvious thing we’re concerned about is how the contract was accepted and put in place at the meeting of the prior Board and that meeting was hastily called. We want to make sure everything is straight and alright.”
Standish said they want to review the total compensation package, the term of the contract, and the terms of dismissal for cause.
He also clarified that most of the discussion at the CHA meeting on March 29th centered around whether or not to open the contract to the state.
“The discussion wasn’t on the terms and conditions of the contract, but rather focused on whether or not we should ask the state to make a ruling, which is whether or not to open the contract to standards of excellence a Board should be following,” he said.
At least one Board member was rather put out during the discussion, that being resident member Don Kingsbury – who objected to opening the contract and objected to being left out of discussions prior to the meeting concerning the contract.
Kingsbury did not immediately return a phone call for comment form the Record.
Needless to say, the strident step by the new Board certainly ruffled more than a few feathers in local political circles. Privately, several elected officials expressed concern for opening a signed contract, but said they were going to give the Board some time to operate. Still, at least one member said he planned to keep a closer eye on the Board after the recent vote to open the contract and send it to the state for a ruling.
The new Board members said that they felt it was absolutely necessary to tackle the subject right off the bat to make sure they weren’t carrying old weight into new and brighter territory.
“As the Board that’s coming in, we want to be apprised of the situation, not fully confident with the old Board that was sitting and relying on them to move us in a new direction,” said Taverna. “Even though it was under receivership, we just want to confirm our ability as a Board to look at this.”