Housing board reverse retirement party vote

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoBillie McGregor, a Salem Housing Authority tenant, criticizes the city's Housing Authority Board at a meeting Wednesday night.

SALEM — A $5,000 Salem Housing Authority party celebrating the career of retired Housing Authority executive director Carol McGowan has been called off. But it came with a pledge to still honor the retired leader "in another fashion at another time" and some sparring on how to search for the Housing Authority's next director.

The Salem Housing Authority Board met in a community room at the back of the association's administrative offices on Charter Street Wednesday night. The small room was packed by an audience of more than 30 Housing Authority tenants and regulars among the city's political scene.

The board unanimously rescinded its vote from a meeting on Feb. 13 to hold a party for McGowan using Housing Authority reserve funds. They're in the process of recovering a limited chunk of cash already spent to host the party, according to John Boris, the board's Chairman.

The original vote was 4-1, with city Mayor Kim Driscoll the lone dissenter on the board.

"This was a use of funds that, unfortunately, was approved by the board," Driscoll said when calling for the rescission Wednesday night. "It was a source of embarrassment for us that we'd use public dollars for a private retirement party."

A few tenants attending the meeting piled their criticism on. Remarks about the February vote were scattered among complaints about snow removal, parking conditions and other issues with the city's various Housing Authority properties.

"When people look at subsidized housing, they think of their tax dollars. Look at Chelsea and others who've misrepresented how they've spent," said tenant Kathleen Burke. "You may have that money, but is it the right thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing to do?"

Most of those who spoke about the board's role with the executive director addressed the process to hire a new director.

The meeting served as an opportunity for Driscoll — who's appointment to the Housing Authority Board was controversial for the mayor's role in appointing the other members — to speak from a position of strength. She seized the opportunity at two points during the meeting, when the board had not acted to rescind the party vote and during discussions on how to sift through applications for the next Housing Authority director.

"We're forming a search committee as soon as possible to help us determine how to go through applications we have," Boris said. He also insisted that all five members of the board serve on the search committee, that way the entire process would be visible for the public.

But that's an issue, Driscoll said, because "from Day One, those applicants will be known to everybody."

"If it's a five-member body of this board, then it chills any applicants coming in," Driscoll said, adding that searches typically start behind closed doors and ultimately only reveal finalists, to protect the identities of everyone else applying.

"I'm being advised that, even if it's two members (from the board on the search committee), it comes under Open Meeting Law," Boris responded.

"That's wholly incorrect," Driscoll answered back. "This isn't the most complicated decision in the world."

Driscoll also used strong words to condemn the speed of the process.

"This is now the third month that we've been spending trying to put together a screening committee," Driscoll said. "It has taken us three months to put together a screening committee. That's way too long, and we're in circles arguing about the same thing."

Ultimately, the board voted to hold a special meeting soon to finalize plans for and launch the search committee.

As residents spoke, they identified the need for tenants to serve on the committee. Signs held by a couple audience members called for three to participate, while others demanded a spectrum from across the Housing Authority landscape be included.

"There are a lot of people that live in housing that have really expansive backgrounds in affordable housing," Burke said. "It's good that you utilize what they have for knowledge."

Billie McGregor, another tenant, spoke while standing and leaning in toward the board.

"In the future, you will be fully transparent. You will be fully supportive of a city-wide tenants association, and you will tap into the wealth of knowledge and information we have," McGregor said. "You will do your jobs. You will get the appropriate training you need that'll teach you how to be on a board of directors."

Lindsay Morsillo, a Broad Street resident who doesn't live on Housing Authority property, said the ability to hire a new director is a golden shot "to sort of recast the whole organization as a whole."

"You can make sure you hire someone with a vision, a large vision for the role of the Housing Authority in Salem," Morsillo said. "An executive director that looks at the tenants as a customer to be served rather than a problem to be solved could be a really good thing for the organization."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.