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BMHA director resigns, agency refuses to disclose severance agreement

Dawn Sanders-Garrett resigned Thursday from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, ending her almost 12-year tenure as executive director of the financially struggling agency.

Following months of speculation that the BMHA board of commissioners was looking to replace Sanders-Garrett, board chairman David Rodriguez announced toward the end of Thursday's monthly meeting that Sanders-Garrett had submitted her resignation, effective immediately. The resignation was unanimously accepted by the board.

Rodriguez said the terms of Sanders-Garrett's resignation are confidential, and neither he nor Sanders-Garrett would provide further details.

"The parties reached a confidential agreement acceptable to both parties," Rodriguez said.

Such agreements involving public employees are public documents, and should be publicly released, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State's Committee on Open Government.

"It's public money," Freeman said. "If there is a record, if there is something in writing, it would be public."

Rodriguez, who is an attorney, declined comment when told of Freeman's remarks. The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information request asking for a copy of the agreement.

Sanders-Garrett earned $120,000 annually plus 24-hour use of a BMHA car under a contract that expired in 2015.

The BMHA has faced some difficult times in recent years, with budget cuts leading to staffing cuts that are being blamed for myriad problems at many of the agency's 26 housing developments, which serve some 10,000 residents.

Over the past winter, for example, the agency has come under fire from tenants complaining they have gone without heat or hot water for days at a time, that apartments are infested with bedbugs, and that maintenance crews don't respond when called.

As Washington has continued to reduce operating and capital funding to the agency, the BMHA has also come under criticism for not finding a way to demolish or restore hundreds of vacant apartments in the Commodore Perry development as well as A.D. Price Courts.

There have also been complaints of available BMHA apartments not being turned around quickly enough, and of low employee morale leading to unusually high sick time.

And there had been complaints for years – prior to a non-travel policy put in place in August 2017 – that Sanders-Garrett had spent too much time travelling to housing authority conferences rather than dealing with the day-to-day problems at the authority.

But after board members voted to accept Sanders-Garrett's resignation, it was time for accolades.

"People will remember you as a champion. A woman of dignity, grace and integrity," said Rev. Alan R. Core, one of the commissioners appointed by Mayor Byron W. Brown.

"We haven't always agreed, but I don't think we've ever stopped being friends," said board member Leonard Williams, one of the tenant-election commissioners. "I want to thank you for your service. It will ring loudly in the ears of anyone who wants to hear that you did your very best, and we thank you for that."

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses for a photo with Dawn Sanders-Garrett during a campaign stop at Golden Cup Coffee Company in Buffalo in 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Sanders-Garrett then stood to address the room, appearing emotional at times as she gave what she described as comments from the heart.

"It's a bittersweet day, but joyous occasion," she said. "We have had so many, so many accomplishments in the face of adversity, in the face of naysayers.

"We had people say we couldn't do a development,"  she said, referring to an ongoing development project at Frederick Douglass apartments that the BMHA has taken great pride in because the agency is serving as its own developer.

"I stand before you on the shoulders of many people before me, who always gave me the strength when sometimes the job got very difficult to bear," she continued. "I tried to serve to the best of my ability."

Sanders-Garrett was appointed in 2007.  She does not have another job lined up, several BMHA sources said. Her husband, Tyrone Garrett, is executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority.

BMHA attorney Gillian Brown – no relation to the mayor – will serve as interim executive director of the BMHA while a national search is done to replace Sanders-Garrett, Rodriguez said.

This will be Brown's second stint as interim executive director. He served in that capacity prior to Sanders-Garrett being named to the post.

"I'm happy for the vote of confidence from the board," Brown said, adding that he is not interested in keeping the job permanently.

Modesto Candelario, Sanders-Garrett's longtime assistant executive director, will remain in his post, continuing to focus on development issues, Rodriguez said.

The agency is also continuing to talk with Yvonne McCray, hoping to bring her in as an assistant executive director in charge of operations. McCray currently works as a housing official for the Brown administration in City Hall.

Mayor Brown, who appoints a majority of the BMHA board members, also thanked Sanders-Garrett for her years of service. "I will call her to thank her," he said.

The mayor then went on to talk about the housing authority's future.

"I am looking forward to a sound future for the BMHA and working with the new leadership in confronting the challenges that public housing authorities face across the country on a daily basis," he said. "Sadly, public housing is clearly not a priority for the current administration in Washington."

Brown issued a statement Thursday through his spokesman, Michael J. DeGeorge, in which Brown said he is looking forward to a positive future for BHMA.

"I thank her for her more than 10 years of service to the BMHA and wish her well in her future endeavors," Brown said in the statement, of Sanders-Garrett.

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