CLAREMONT — The Claremont Housing Authority (CHA) held a special meeting yesterday in the office of interim City Manager John MacLean. On Monday members of the housing authority board and its executive director attended a training organized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The purpose of the Thursday meeting was to go over what they had learned at the training and how it might improve relations among the director, the board of commissioners, and the tenants at Marion Phillips Apartments going forward.
MacLean first asked everyone present to state what they expected to get out of the meeting. Tenant Bonnie Sczuka-Dodson said she was concerned that the tenant member of the board was in danger of being “86ed.” New board member Ann Campbell said she had found the training quite helpful. Board member and tenant Kathleen O’Brien said she wanted respect for rules, law and order and for tenant needs to be met. Doreen Needham, the chair of the board, wanted to clarify what the board should be doing and how much of the business operations they are allowed to see. She also wished to avoid arguing and improve the flow of information to avoid misunderstanding. Ginny Stowell, a tenant at Marion Phillips, said she has seen a steady decline in the quality of life at the apartment building and that she did not always believe what she heard at the board meetings.
Executive Director Michelle Aiken said she had called the meeting because she felt the board meetings had spiraled out of control and perhaps MacLean could provide some guidance. She noted that previous trainings she had attended had been only for executive directors; she learned much from a conference focused on relations between directors and their boards.
Aiken said she had made a list of “what we were doing differently” compared to other boards. She said that going forward the Claremont board would talk only about items on the agenda. MacLean asked if the housing authority agenda included a public forum during which the board could hear the public (the tenants) speak about subjects not on the agenda (which is the practice of city council meetings). The CHA does not.
The city manager then noted that normally any board member has the ability to bring up a topic at a meeting and with a majority vote by the board, get it added to the agenda. Aiken said that the training had indicated boards should avoid doing that.
MacLean said that if someone asks for an item to be added to the agenda and the vote is against it, it is customary to wait until the next calendar year before bringing up the item again. “This preserves civility,” he said.
Bones of contention
Aiken brought up a recurring bone of contention. O’Brien regularly asks to see the housing authority’s bank statements and reconciliations because she has found the comparative statements the board is given to be inaccurate and to continually prompt questions.
“Why do you need to see those statements,” MacLean asked O’Brien, “if there is an audit at the end of the year.” O’Brien said that she is trained to find patterns and trends in data and finds looking at the bank statements to be an efficient way to see these in spending by the authority. She said she could spend hours trying to get a simple answer out of the director or get it more quickly by looking at the numbers herself.
O’Brien offered the capital fund as an example when MacLean asked for one. “Not all the information is in the comparative statement,” she said, “and the rest is in the ether. The commissioners don’t know what is going into the capital fund and what is going out of it.”
MacLean said he assumed the board was involved in the creation of the budget. O’Brien replied that she had asked for the budget process to begin in June “so it would not be so rushed” but Aiken had put it off until August.
“You give me a budget,” said Aiken, “and I’m expected to stay within it. I don’t have to consult with the board before I spend money.”
“To my ear, this is statutorily driven,” said MacLean about how much involvement the commissioners should have with authority finances. “You need to find the boundary determined by the statute.”
When Stowell asked for more information about how Ball Fund money is spent, Aiken said she could provide it. MacLean said this is a good example of a “dashboard measure,” information that should be readily available any time to those who want it. “That way,” he said, “you don’t have to spend time talking about it.” O’Brien voiced her approval, saying that was the kind of order she would like to see introduced.
Needham told the gathering that she was in a unique position of living in Sugar River Mills, another HUD-financed residence, while being on the Marion Phillips board. “If there was a board there,” she said, “that was looking at financial reports, I would not feel comfortable about it.” O’Brien said that she was interested in the main checking account of the authority, which did not include renter information.
Getting some new perspectives
Aiken has only recently been promoted to director, but held other positions at the authority for several years. Until O’Brien requested more information last year, her only experience was for the commissioners to see the comparative budget. “I didn’t know another way to do it,” she said. “That was the draw of the training. I don’t want the tenants to see us fighting, but I also don’t want to give out something that I’m not supposed to.”
MacLean recommended that Aiken get in touch with other housing authorities around New Hampshire, particular ones larger than Claremont’s, and find out what those directors give to their boards.
When O’Brien continued to press her point about needing to see more financial information, MacLean recommended that the chair find her out of order. “Michelle has agreed to look into it,” he said. “You should not assume that she will not.” MacLean said the time to address the topic was when Aiken did not provide what she had promised, not before. O’Brien stated several times during the course of the meeting that in the past Aiken had not provided information she had requested.
Aiken brought up another practice she learned at the training. She met a director who never communicates with his board via email.
“Everything an executive director sends out is discoverable,” said MacLean, “so a commissioner should never respond via email [when they receive a document from the director].” He recommended that the commissioners call or visit Aiken.
Aiken listed several other practices she had learned from other directors at the training. She also told MacLean that CHA’s books are audited monthly by an outside contractor. “Is this a HUD requirement?” he asked. Aiken did not know and said it was just normal practice for her.
Another discussion ensued when O’Brien said that based on HUD regulations the board should oversee the annual audit of the books. Board member Ann Campbell and MacLean both said that it would be highly unusual to speak with auditors during an audit.