Housing board seeks answers

Housing board seeks answers

CHAMPAIGN — The Housing Authority of Champaign County has a "critical crisis" on its hands, according to its vice chairman, and he says members plan to do their due diligence in finding out how ex-Chairwoman Margaret Neil sat on the board for four years with no record of her appointment.

The board met in closed session on Thursday afternoon to discuss how to rectify the situation after their ex-chair spent nearly a year signing board resolutions with no legal authority to do so.

"This whole situation has caused a lot of turmoil," said Vice Chairman Grant Henry.

Neil, meanwhile, repeated her assertion that the fact that there is no record of her appointment falls on the shoulders of housing authority Executive Director Ed Bland, who also acts as the secretary of the board.

Neil said she was properly elected by a resident advisory board in 2009, but Bland neglected to inform the Champaign County Board to formalize the appointment. Without the formal county board appointment, Neil had no legal status as a board member.

"There are some serious problems," Henry said.

Neil signed 43 board resolutions in her 11 months as the chairwoman of the housing authority's board of commissioners. Those resolutions authorized the director, Bland, to sign contracts related to public housing developments, like the underway Hamilton on the Park.

She also signed off on an annual plan for the agency, payment standards for the housing authority's Section 8 program, a $93,000 security camera system, an agreement with the city of Champaign for the city's Bristol Park redevelopment, Bland's employment agreement, and the $1.5 million acquisition of a parcel of land in southwest Champaign, among others.

While Neil signed those resolutions, she signed only one contract, a duty typically left for Bland.

All of those documents could be thrown into question with Neil's legal status as a board member. She is no longer considered a member of the board — her portrait and nameplate were stripped from the boardroom wall on Thursday.

Neil maintained her claims on Thursday that she was properly elected to that board, and her appointment should have been formalized — if something had been wrong in 2009, she said, someone would have stopped her from taking a seat with board members.

"Something is definitely wrong with that picture," Neil said.

Neil's predecessor as a resident commissioner, Ladine Shelby, gave public comment during Thursday's meeting, refuting claims that she resigned from the housing authority board. Rather, she discussed a letter then-resident advisory board president Neil sent to Shelby on Nov. 13, 2008.

"We are aware that you have exceeded the five year term and want to move forward to allow another resident the privilege to serve as a Commissioner for the Housing Authority of Champaign County," Neil wrote in the 2008 letter to Shelby. "Your dismissal is effective as of January 1, 2009."

Shelby accepted the letter — saying on Thursday that she was busy at the time and had no need to address what she thought was an improper dismissal — and Neil later came to be the resident commissioner.

Neil said on Thursday that it still seems far-fetched that a letter could help her sneak onto the board.

"In no boardroom can somebody just sit there because I sent Ms. Shelby a letter," Neil said.

In other public comments on Thursday, two housing authority employees asked board members to be more prudent in dealing with the public.

Patty Smith, director of capital programs, and Charles Morton, director of housing operations, told the board that commissioners may not deliberately make their jobs harder, but they are creating obstacles.

Smith and Morton told the board that they should support the executive director, refer all resident phone calls to housing authority staff and not discuss housing issues that have not been made public.

"Please keep the business to which you are privy to yourself," Smith said.

The two employees told board members that they support Bland "and believe the board should, too," and they should speak positively of the housing authority in public.

"We expect no less of our commissioners," Morton said.

They also said board members make promises to residents that housing authority staff cannot always deliver on. Morton said the board members have not had the experience with public housing that he has.

"If you want to know something about public housing, you come and talk to Charles Morton, and I'll give you an answer," Morton said.

Urbana resident and former city council member Esther Patt said she hates to hear that board members should keep information to themselves. It is not a private enterprise, she said.

"Do not be embarrassed to do your job," Patt said.

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