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BMHA commissioners approve trip to Las Vegas, to learn about housing

Some Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority commissioners could be heading to Las Vegas to learn how to do their jobs.

While the BMHA board has restricted travel for the agency's top executives, commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to send themselves to a public housing conference being held at a hotel on the Las Vegas strip from March 7 to 9.

BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett said there's money in the current BMHA budget set aside for training and conferences. Neither Sanders-Garrett nor any board members questioned by The Buffalo News knew how much the Las Vegas trip would cost.

Conference registration is about $550 per person, and hotels are about $100 a night plus tax per room, according to an online brochure for the conference. Round-trip airfare between Buffalo and Las Vegas on the conference dates is about $300.

The conference is sponsored by Nelrod, a consulting firm with expertise in federal housing programs.

While all seven BMHA commissioners received permission to attend the conference, about half – three or four – indicated Thursday they were considering attending.

Among them was tenant-elected BMHA Commissioner Leonard Williams, who said the conference has training designed specifically for commissioners on public housing boards.

BMHA board chairman David Rodriguez, who in prior years served as a BMHA staff attorney, said he won't be attending, but nonetheless supports others going. There's a lot of technical, development and financial information commissioners must know to do their jobs well, and the upcoming conference is a good opportunity for learning, he said.

"I think this is important," Rodriguez said.

"We come from all walks of life," he said, of the board of commissioners. "The work we do is complicated."

"I view this as necessary, but we have to be prudent," Rodriguez added. "We are the stewards of these funds."

Williams agreed, and said: "We are custodians of the public money."

Meanwhile, the board's travel restrictions for top staff remain in place.

New BMHA board majority bans travel for top executives

Those restrictions were imposed in September, shortly after Mayor Byron W. Brown replaced a majority of the BMHA board members. As the new board chairman, Rodriguez at the time said it was important for Sanders-Garrett and other top staff to remain in town, and be available to work closely with the new board.

The ban was imposed several months after The News reported in March that BMHA staff and officials had taken 115 trips from Jan. 1, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2016.

Sanders-Garrett was the most frequent traveler, taking 34 trips to conferences and meetings during the four-year period, taking her out of town for all or part of 158 days.

When the ban was imposed, Rodriguez said it would be temporary, but did not give an ending date.

He said, however, the board members were not included in the travel ban, and that the board could make exceptions for top staff to travel, on a case-by-case basis.

Sanders-Garrett has defended her travel, saying she used the meetings to lobby on behalf of the BMHA and look for ways the agency could obtain additional funding.

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