OHA defends counsel, blasts fired director

OHA defends counsel, blasts fired director

Less than two weeks after board commissioners of the Orange Housing Authority (OHA) terminated whistleblower Tanya Wilson effective Friday, March 8, the board elected to make Deputy Director Lanita Brown its new acting executive director on March 19. Board president Mary McKenna said Brown would not be getting an increase in pay to go along with the new position, but commissioner Joe Robinson insisted that Brown had already received a $30,000 pay raise roughly three months ago.

Robinson said the tens of thousands of dollars in pay increases doled out to top employees of the housing authority could have been funds used to serve the tenants of OHA.

“What you’re saying is valid,” Brown conceded to commissioner Robinson. “But,” she added, “you should have said that in December.” Brown’s salary, according to an unamended OHA payroll budget for 2013, is in excess of $98,000 plus benefits. Other top employees paid under the unaltered payroll budget place former executive director Tanya Wilson with a salary of $145,000, ex-OHA commissioner turned employee the Rev. Raymond Young with a $65,000 annual salary, operation director Karen Knolley with a $90,000 annual salary, account manager Aniji Johnson earning $80,000 annually, and staffer Don Shepherd paid $90,000 annually.

Brown said that no one’s salary is safe at this point, however.

“Salaries may be cut trying to keep from having to lay off people,” she said. One person who did get cut from employment at the March 19 meeting was the contracted lawn service provider, whose contract the OHA commissioners voted to cancel via a “without cause” clause due to funding issues. Additional victims to funding cuts will also include any prospective new clients of OHA.

“We will not be issuing any new vouchers or having any new move-ins,” Brown asserted.

A contract that will not be voided will be that of the board’s legal counsel, Germer Gertz. Prior to being fired as the housing authority’s executive director, Wilson sent a letter alerting the law firm that their services would no longer be needed for the purposes of general business. OHA board commissioner Mike Combs said he felt Wilson’s actions were “illegal” and “inappropriate.”

“It was a surprise to me,” board president McKenna noted. “It’s too late to jump ships from this law firm. …”

Legal counsel affirmed, the board went behind closed doors to confer with their attorney Howell “Chip” Cobb of Germer Gertz about the “status of pending or threatened litigation, claims or other pending legal issues.” Although Cobb would not disclose the subject matter of the board’s meeting, attorney Cade Bernsen of the Bernsen & Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont confirmed he has given notice to the OHA board and their legal representatives that he will be representing ousted executive director Wilson in her wrongful termination proceedings from this point.

Orange City Council representative Annette Pernell said she was floored with news that Wilson had been terminated from her post.

“I’m aware that they fired her, and a lot of us need to be upset about that,” she said. “But, people don’t seem to care. We need to find out what’s going on at the housing authority and why we aren’t in the loop with what’s going on.”

Orange City Council representative Essie Bellfield took a proactive approach to finding out what’s going on at OHA. Prior to the board’s recess to consult with their attorney, Bellfield requested some pointed information from the group pertaining to exorbitant staff salaries.

“You’re paying more than I’m paying my city manager, and that’s a lot of money,” she said, adding that Orange City Manager Shawn Oubre makes less to run the entire city than a housing authority director. “I want to know the educational backgrounds that justify salaries like these.”

McKenna did not address Bellfield directly.

“We do not answer questions here,” McKenna said. “We appreciate your participation. In the future, we will require that all questions be written in advance.”