A tenant-elected housing commissioner alleged Tuesday that "bigotry" has fueled an eight-month campaign to smear the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority as mismanaged and potentially corrupt.
Mary Rogers, a board member for 22 years, said criticism by federal housing officials, the state financial control board, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and some Common Council members has been unfair. Rogers contended that she and other minority board members have been singled out for alleged excesses, including running up cell phone bills and engaging in what has been described as extravagant travel.
She contended that the criticism surfaced only after the Housing Authority picked a minority-operated firm in February to conduct a national search for a new executive director. During the summer, commissioners defied Masiello's wishes and selected Estelle W. Brooks for the job. Brooks, an African-American, later decided not to accept the position.
"It's all about bigotry and character assassination of black folks," Rogers said.
The authority's most vocal critic on the Council said Rogers' accusation is baseless.
"Incompetence knows no color," said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr.
Masiello, who has called for the resignations or removal of the housing commissioners, said the accusations of racism collapse when one looks at his record.
"This mayor supported Sharon West an African-American -- who served as [the authority's] executive director for 10 years," Masiello said Tuesday night. "There's clearly no history of racism."
Earlier Tuesday, Golombek and Niagara Council member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. failed to get a majority of the Council to support Masiello's call for the resignations or removal of the commissioners.
Masiello said he is exploring his legal options for trying to oust three commissioners if they do not resign. He pointed to a federal investigation that cites widespread incompetence, or worse, within the agency. He contended that most of the criticism has centered on the actions of Rogers, Aqiel A. Qadir, the other tenant-elected commissioner, and board Chairman Sherrill W. Colston.
The mayor urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace the two tenant-elected commissioners and called on his four remaining appointees to resign.
Matthew L. Brown, Masiello's former communications chief, resigned from the board last week, saying he did not want to be part of an agency that operates in such a manner.
Rogers said she does not think that it is a coincidence that the three commissioners singled out for criticism are African-American, adding that their faces have been "all over the television."
She said she is outraged that the report's contents were leaked to the media a week ago, contending that board members have yet to see any findings in writing.
Colston agreed that racism "may have something to do" with the criticisms. He made it clear Tuesday that he has no intention of resigning, and he threatened to sue if Masiello tries to remove him.
"I haven't done anything wrong," he insisted. "If I resign, it would mean that I thought I had done something wrong."
HUD's final report will be released soon, Masiello predicted. He asked HUD to investigate the authority this fall.
Officials say the probe found evidence of incompetence, or worse, in the handling of millions of dollars of contracts. It also found evidence of a governing board run amok, questionable perquisites and intimidation of employees.
Qadir defended cell phone bills that HUD officials said averaged $443 a month over the last year. He said the commissioners who live in the developments receive many calls.
"We've had two homicides and a whole host of shootings, OK? Who do you think folks are calling?" he asked.
The first wave of criticism came last spring when the control board that oversees city spending assailed the authority's setting aside nearly $124,000 for trips, credit card spending, cell phones, insurance and stipends for volunteer commissioners. Colston said Tuesday that all travel was halted in June.
The Council stopped short of backing the mayor's call for the resignations. The measure was shelved over the objections of Bonifacio, Golombek and Council President David A. Franczyk, who represents the Fillmore District.
Some lawmakers, including Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola of the Delaware District, argued that it would be undemocratic to try to oust the two commissioners elected by residents.
Still, Coppola and other lawmakers who refused to support the calls for resignation said there is clearly a need for reforms in the housing agency. Some Council members are still angered by the authority's decision to abolish its public safety unit last summer.
"If I were one of those members, I would resign in shame after letting all those public safety officers go out the door," Coppola said.
University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell referred to Housing Authority "corruption" but said she is not prepared to call for the removal of the two tenant-elected commissioners. She said she hopes to arrange a meeting with tenants soon.
Bonifacio and Golombek want to study the possibility of placing the authority under the city's Office of Strategic Planning. Golombek contends that the authority is a "shadow government" that provides to little accountability and too much "cover" for politicians.
But Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson said that folding the Housing Authority into the planning unit would be a "bad idea."
"They can't even get our houses fixed," Thompson said of the Office of Strategic Planning.
The issue will be discussed by a Council committee.