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Editorials • June 5, 2007

The Housing Scandal: A Perfect Storm

By David M. Wilson (05-25-07)

In separate reports, City Manager Phil Kamlarz and City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque have found gross incompetence, if not fraud, in the Berkeley Housing Authority. BHA manages a budget of $25,000,000 per year. This is supposed to provide subsidized housing for nearly 1900 needy families. The truth, as reported in the Daily Planet on May 22, is that in too many cases the money goes to ineligible persons, and even to people who are long dead. Finding "egregious violations" of federal rules, and active employee resistance to reform, Kamlarz and Albuquerque ask the mayor and City Council to replace themselves as directors of BHA with a set of Mayoral appointees, and to terminate the employment of 13 full time staffers. Strangely (given the alleged misconduct), the fired employees are to be offered equal or better positions elsewhere in the city bureaucracy. The city will kick in another $947,000 to help BHA to "transition" to something different (what exactly is not described).

At 6 p.m. on May 22, I went to the raucous council meeting that was called to deal with the reports (everyone knows that if Berkeley can't fix BHA, the feds will). What came out was typical for Berkeley: lots of finger-pointing, and no assumption of responsibility by the likely culprits, who include just about everyone in sight. For example:

The mayor and council have been the directors of BHA since the beginning. They hire the city manager (Kamlarz) and appoint the housing director (Steve Barton). These two in turn recommend the BHA manager, and supervise his/her performance. While each of the councilmembers said a ritual mea culpa, most of them didn't really mean it. They said they were "surprised" at the reports, even though they have gotten many similar reports ever since 2002. They criticized the May 22 Planet article as "one-sided," even though the article is taken almost word for word from the official reports and from interviews with Kamlarz, Barton and other principles. And in the end the council majority promised equal or better jobs (or a full year's severance pay) to the accused employees regardless of fault.

The employees, who dominated public comment, complained (with some justification) they were being scapegoated. But many of them were hostile and in-everybody's-face, and none conceded the slightest possibility of being wrong. If this is how some city workers behave in front of the TV cameras, you can only imagine how they act with their clients, the citizens of Berkeley. And if it is true that the city's SEIU contracts guarantee continuing jobs for persons found after investigation to be incompetent, we have a far bigger problem than these 13 BHA employees.

Management seems to get off scot-free. By putting his name on the indictment against the employees, Kamlarz obscures the fact that he himself should be one of the accused. As for Barton, the Planet notes the absence of his name on the latest reports, and quotes him as having been "unaware" of some of the BHA problems. This is strange indeed since Barton himself has been enmeshed in the BHA/HUD fight from the beginning, and on Jan. 17 of last year told the City Council, in writing, of instances of "fraudulent reporting" at BHA.

Barton does not have the excuse of Kamlarz and the council, i.e. that they are too busy with other matters to pay much attention to BHA. He is not protected by SEIU, and should be fired. As housing director for the city, Barton is responsible not only for BHA's Section 8 program, but also for the now bankrupt affordable housing trust fund. He is the author of the condominium conversion ordinance which he said would bring the city $4 million a year in added trust funds. Now, nearly two years later, not a single dollar has come in. He continues to resist any reevaluation of Berkeley's rent control program, which costs $3 million per year but which no longer helps those most in need of help.

The whole thing reminds us of the Bush administration, which continually blames lowerlings for the gross mistakes of political appointees, and which rewards the people on top with even better jobs than before. Paul Wolfowitz screws up in Iraq. Is he held accountable? No, he's sent to the World Bank.

That's no way to run a country. It's no way to run Berkeley.

David M. Wilson is a Berkeley resident and landlord.


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