Leader Blues

Saturday, September 02, 2006

TOP STORY >>Housing board regrouping

IN SHORT: It will be a while before commissioners can oversee the troubled authority.

By PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

It may be a while before the Jacksonville Housing Authority board can function normally because of an ongoing review by federal officials and the departure of most board members and the 45-day waiting period required before a new board can be recognized.

At a special meeting Thursday, the Jacksonville City Council approved four nominees to serve on JHA Board of Commissioners. With little discussion, the aldermen present unanimously approved all four nominees. Gary Fletcher made a quick observation about the nominees before the vote.

“Looks like a good bunch of good people,” Fletcher said.

Mike Wilkinson, Marilyn Canon, Jon Johnson and Jim Durham were selected and have been approved.

Marshall Smith was the only city alderman not in attendance at the meeting, which took place at Jacksonville City Hall.

Fred West, the sole remaining JHA board member, insists that as prescribed by rules set up to govern the local board, several weeks must elapse before the board is recognized.

“They’ve got to wait 45 days after a resignation,” West told The Leader Thursday.

Three of the four resignations occurred in mid-August following the sudden departure of Housing Authority director Virginia Simmons. Only the fourth board vacancy opened up more than 45 days ago.

The Housing Authority, which this year received $1.6 million from HUD, is under investigation, according to Patricia Campbell, HUD public affairs officer in Fort Worth.

Bessie Jackson, field office director for HUD in Little Rock, previously told The Leader that a review was underway into JHA’s operations and management.

Details of the review have yet to be made public. Mayor Tommy Swaim said he’s been in contact with the HUD office in Little Rock on Thursday. “We may have some type of report from them within a week,” he said.

Before she left, Simmons received $10,000, which included her accumulative annual leave, according to a document at the JHA’s office. The JHA’s office oversees Max Howell Place, the 100-unit public housing complex, and all of the local Section 8 voucher recipients.

Vouchers are given to qualified applicants based upon family incomes, but they must find their own residences before receiving a reduction in monthly rents.

At Max Howell Place, rent is based on 30 percent of a family’s adjusted income. Allowable deductions are available for the elderly, handicapped or disabled, and for childcare and medical expenses.

After looking to state statutes for guidelines on filling board vacancies, Swaim began a search to find qualified nominees willing to serve.

Swaim also explained that the JHA board could not officially meet since one member does not constitute a quorum.
Neither West, nor any of the newly approved members to the JHA board, attended the abbreviated special council meeting. He said later he didn’t know about the special meeting.

Durham, who owns commercial real estate and businesses in Jacksonville and Cabot, said he knew he might be nominated.
“The mayor contacted me about it, I believe, right after receiving the resignations,” Durham said. “I’ll go into it without any preconceived notion.”

Durham is no stranger to serving his community. Not only has he served on the Jacksonville Civil Service Commission for about 20 years, he has also served as a city alderman representing Ward 3 of Jacksonville.

Marilyn Canon, a retired paralegal for Centerpoint Energy, formerly Arkla Gas Company, said, “When the mayor asked for me to consent to being nominated, I was excited.”

Canon, who has lived in Jacksonville for 34 years, is pleased that, since her retirement, she will have enough time to give back to the community. “I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” she added.

According to Swaim, Wilkinson is an “accountant by trade” and Jon Johnson practices law in Jacksonville.

Since July, four key slots at the JHA have become vacant following the resignation of Virginia Simmons, Housing Authority director for 14 years. Three board members — Robert Whatley, Ferrell Gray and Robert Colford — then stepped down in mid-August. A fourth member of the JHA board, Johnny Moory, resigned due to a family illness.

He did this before the others and before the HUD review got underway.