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Editorial: BMHA officials need to rein in travel and focus on critical problems at home

The question about the enthusiastic travels of Dawn Sanders-Garrett is, according to some observers, less about costs than it is about the time she is away from her job as director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. We’d say it’s both.

For the years 2013 to 2016, Sanders-Garrett’s travel expenses totaled about $27,000 for 34 trips. All of that travel was necessary, she and others say, to keep current on information that benefits the authority’s tenants, underserved and increasingly aggravated though they are.

It seems dubious. For example, in three months from October 2015 to the following January, Sanders-Garrett traveled to sessions in California, Charleston, S.C., and finally to Florida – twice. However much the authority chooses to downplay those costs relative to their value, it’s unthinkable that so much travel and training are needed to be a competent manager.

None of that is to diminish the problems created by her chronic absence from Buffalo, and tenants notice. “If the executive director is gone all the time, there is no direction, and that’s what we see,” said tenant leader Sam Smith, who lives in the Stuyvesant Apartments senior complex. “And who pays the price? The residents.”

Sanders-Garrett rejects the criticism, insisting that she is looking for ways to produce more money and to advocate for policies that assist the Buffalo housing agency. She is reachable by phone and computer, she says. “There is never a time I don’t know what is going on at the office. This is a 24/7 job.”

That’s all true, but an absent manager is not a hands-on manager. A manager who does not see for herself what is going on, how conditions are improving or deteriorating, is operating at a disadvantage. Showing up counts.

The issue goes deeper, because it’s not just Sanders-Garrett who is traveling on the authority’s dime. Over the same four-year period, The News found that a total of 115 trips were taken at a cost of just over $120,000, averaging about 2.4 trips and $2,500 a month – for 48 months.

The Housing Authority is a sewer of problems that demand attention. Just one: Vacant apartments in the Commodore Perry Homes were unsecured, with open windows in residences that are still heated and have become a magnet for people seeking a warm place to stay. And those apartments are only a few blocks from the authority’s administrative offices.

Once the situation was publicized in The News, the BMHA responded quickly to secure the apartments, but that’s not how professional management is supposed to work – especially management that is dunning the public for tens of thousands of dollars in professional training costs.
The BMHA desperately needs to be audited, either by Buffalo City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder or by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, whose office hasn’t poked into the authority’s operations in recent times. It should happen soon.

The problems pervading the BMHA also need to rise higher on Mayor Byron W. Brown’s to-do list. The mayor wields authority over the organization and, eventually, its problems will become his problems. The travel habits within the BMHA are only a symptom of a larger issue that requires official attention.

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