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New BMHA board majority bans travel for top executives

Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority top executives have been grounded – at least for the time being.

The BMHA board – at its first meeting since Mayor Byron W. Brown replaced a majority of its members – voted Thursday to impose travel restrictions on the agency's top management, including Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett.

While the resolution does not spell out a time-frame for the restrictions, board Chairman David Rodriguez indicated he would like a travel ban for Sanders-Garrett, top assistant Modesto Candelario, and two other BMHA officials – the authority's attorney and one of its top development administrators – for at least the next three months.

The travel ban, he continued, is not in response to media reports on BMHA travel and is not meant to be punitive in any way. Instead, he said, the BMHA board has a lot of work to do in the new few months, and it's important that the authority's executive staff be available to work closely with the board.

"The cessation of business travel is to ensure that executive staff is here with us in Buffalo," Rodriguez said. "I understand the executive director is a member of many important organizations. At some point travel will have to be resume for the best interest of the housing authority."

The BMHA travel restriction was approved by a 4-3 vote.

The measure was introduced by Rodriguez, one of four new board members recently appointed by Brown to the seven-member board. Rodriguez was elected board chairman at Thursday's meeting.

Concerns mount over BMHA chief's heavy travel schedule

Voting with Rodriguez were board members Rishawn T. Sonubi and David J. State, both also new to the board. The fourth vote supporting the measure came from Leonard Williams, one of two tenant-elected commissioners on the board.

Williams has previously said he supports travel as a way for BMHA officials to get additional training. But Thursday he said he also believes it's important to review travel policies to ensure that any travel done is benefiting the authority.

Prior to voting for the measure, Williams suggested the measure be tabled and sent to committee so board members had more time to discuss it. But Williams later said he was speaking as chairman of the BMHA's finance and operations committee, which had reviewed the measure prior to Thursday's meeting. That was the feeling of others on the committee, he said.

In fact, two others on that committee, BMHA Commissioners Robin Edwards and Alan Core, voted against the measure. Also voting against the measure was Nona Watson, the fourth new board member.

Executive director not only BMHA official who travels

Edwards – who, like Williams, is a tenant-elected commissioner – said Sanders-Garrett travels to lobby for the BMHA and to look for ways to secure funds for the agency.

The Buffalo News last February reported 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.

Sanders-Garrett defended the travel, saying she used the meetings to lobby on behalf of the BMHA and look for ways the BMHA could obtain additional funding. Sanders-Garrett noted she has leadership roles on some of the housing authority organizations whose meetings she attends.

The News' articles attracted attention from the chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which asked the BMHA to document its travel and other spending.

Sanders-Garrett on Thursday said she hasn't done any traveling this year and doesn't have any upcoming travel plans.  The executive director said she has not had time to travel over the past year because she's been needed in Buffalo to work on development and financial plans for a proposed $14.2 million upgrade to one of the BMHA's developments, the Frederick Douglass Homes.

Sanders-Garrett noted she typically remains in Buffalo, and doesn't travel, when working to get development projects such as this completed.

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