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Council approves four new housing commissioners

The Common Council voted, 6-2, today to confirm four new commissioners to serve on the problem-plagued Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

While all lawmakers expressed support for Mayor Byron W. Brown's nominees, Council President David A. Franczyk and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns pushed for an amendment that would have asked housing commissioners to file a progress report this spring.

They want the board to address key concerns, including public safety in housing developments and how city subsidies are being used. Franczyk and Kearns voted against the confirmations after other lawmakers objected to the amendment on procedural grounds.

Six other Council members voted to confirm the mayor's appointments. Delaware Council Member Marc A. Coppola was absent from the special session.

The Council will likely still call on housing commissioners for a progress report. Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana, who initially raised the idea, said he will sponsor a resolution at a March 7 meeting calling for a detailed update on key concerns this spring.

At a special meeting with Council members Wednesday, the four incoming commissioners vowed to bring more accountability and sound fiscal management to an entity that runs 27 housing developments.

They promised to keep an "open mind" on ideas touted by Council members, including a long-debated plan to sell the Marine Drive Apartments on the waterfront to a private developer.

Some also pledged to review ways the city and its Housing Authority might be able to merge services, including human resources and some computer tasks.

Most Council members praised the appointees' professional backgrounds.

Ronald Brown is chief fiscal officer of Friends to the Elderly, Friends and Family Services. Hal D. Payne is vice president for student affairs at Buffalo State College. Michael A. Seaman is the city's director of treasury and collections, and Betty Calvo-Torres is an attorney and current president of the Hispanic Women's League and the Minority Bar Association of Western New York.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., one of the Housing Authority's most pointed critics in City Hall, called the nominees "very qualified people" and said he is pleased that lawmakers appeared ready to make their appointments official today.

"I want to start getting the [Housing Authority] board reformed as quickly as possible," Golombek said.

Kearns said it is obvious the nominees are "respected professionals" in their fields, but he is concerned that none has been involved in running municipal housing authorities.

"The housing experience is lacking," said Kearns, adding that this fact makes it all the more important that the board hire a permanent executive director for the authority soon.

Calvo-Torres and Ronald Brown said they lived in public housing in the New York City area. Payne said he oversees student housing at Buffalo State.

University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said she is convinced the nominees have what it takes to reform an authority that has been criticized by federal housing officials, city auditors and the control board. The four new commissioners will constitute a majority on the seven-member board.

Russell added that she hopes residents in public housing elect two new tenant representatives to the board in June.

The spending practices of the two current tenant-elected commissioners, Aqiel Qadir and Mary Rogers, were criticized in a federal report.

Mayor Brown has proposed a number of actions aimed at ending spending abuses, including taking cell phones and credit cards away from commissioners.


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