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Editorial: An opportunity at BMHA

Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett’s resignation as head of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority offers the mostly mayoral-appointed board the opportunity to improve the lives of 10,000 residents by filling the position with a highly-qualified professional able to tackle the difficult task of managing an aged and decrepit public housing system.

First, there is the issue of the lack of transparency.

Chairman David Rodriguez announced toward the end of Thursday’s meeting that Sanders-Garrett had submitted her resignation, effective immediately. The resignation was unanimously accepted by the board.

What about the terms? On that point, Rodriguez and the others remain silent. It is wrong. Nothing short of full disclosure about the use of public money is acceptable. Without it, speculation about golden parachutes will start to billow.

Rodriguez’s explanation that the terms of Sanders-Garrett’s resignation are confidential falls flat: “The parties reached a confidential agreement acceptable to both parties.” Really?

Sanders-Garrett spent 12 years as head of a public housing authority with a string of complaints, failures and recent announcement of a wide-ranging U.S. Housing and Urban Development audit. And neither Rodriguez nor Sanders-Garrett has anything to say about her deal? After all that has occurred, this has to be the final insult to the people living in deplorable conditions.

With the board members’ suspicious silence, it is up to Mayor Byron W. Brown to pressure his board picks to come clean. As Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, notes, this is public information.

“It’s public money,” he said. “If there is a record, if there is something in writing, it would be public.”

The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of the agreement. It should be unnecessary. What the public knows about Sanders-Garrett’s arrangement at the housing authority is her salary: $120,000 annually. Her perks: she once had 24-hour-a-day use of a BMHA car under a contract that expired in 2015.

Then there are the numerous problems that kept some of the agency’s 26 housing developments, serving 10,000 people, in the headlines, and in a bad way. The latest had tenants shivering over the winter, complaining that they had gone without heat or hot water for days at a time. They also said apartments are infested with bedbugs, and that maintenance crews do not respond when called.

It sounds similar to conditions Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described as “disgusting” on a recent visit to a Bronx housing project. The New York City Housing Authority is being criticized for failing to provide heat and hot water to many residents. Cuomo, who served as the federal housing secretary under President Bill Clinton, said he was prepared to declare a state of emergency at that housing authority. He might want to turn similar attention to the BMHA.

Besides heating and hot water issues here, BMHA has had a raft of problems that have not been helped by the continued federal reduction in operating and capital support. The issues have been ongoing and include the authority’s inability to demolish or restore hundreds of vacant apartments in the Commodore Perry Homes and A.D. Price Courts. Add to that, slow turnarounds on available housing authority apartments and low employee morale which has added up to the use of large amounts of sick time.

Sanders-Garrett didn’t help her case. Before a non-travel policy was put in place in August, she was justly criticized for spending too much time out of town at housing conferences. She never seemed to understand the weight of her responsibilities.

Mayor Brown revamped the board last year with an impressive list of solid choices. Now that the agency’s underperforming chief has resigned, the revamped board has an opportunity to find someone who can live up to the task of providing decent, affordable housing while moving the agency toward competence.

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