With all of the stories being written about the Chelsea Housing Authority I am incredulous that some folks would be pointing a finger at City Manager Jay Ash. Although I am a Mayor I really do not know Manager Ash, but I am familiar with his work. Ash is known far and wide as an outstanding municipal manager, a reputation that is richly deserved. Ash is now taking some criticism over the fact that Board members that he appointed approved the over-sized pay package for former Executive Director Michael McLaughlin. After that fact is brought out the criticism gets a bit murky, as the critics want to use that fact to create a bridge of responsibility to the City Manager. It is a bridge to nowhere.
Housing Authorities are independent agencies, with oversight provided by the State and Federal government. (Specifically DHCD and HUD) Whether it is Chelsea or any other community the Mayors and Managers have no oversight authority over either the Board of Commissioners or the Executive Director. (I believe that in Boston the Mayor has a direct appointment of the Executive Director). This system has been designed deliberately to avoid local oversight and jurisdiction, and the Boards and Executive Directors are protected by State law from such oversight. The idea that Commissioners, once appointed, would report back directly to the Manager or Mayor that appointed them cuts against the grain of existing law. And more importantly any Mayor or Manager who attempted to exercise such “oversight” would be immediately accused of attempting to politicize a Housing Board. The criticism against Ash is not only wrong, but it is not even in the ballpark. It is based on ignorance.
In Methuen we have had controversy at the Housing Authority over the years. The SJC case that declared that Methuen was a City, not a Town, was based on a dispute between then Town Manager Robert Leblanc and the elected Board of the Housing Authority, chaired at that time by Kenneth Pollard. Leblanc asserted his right to appoint, under a City form, four of the Commissioners, who up to this point had been elected under a town form of government. The SJC ruled, in Chadwick v Scarth, that Methuen was indeed a City, and that the “elected Commissioners” were to be replaced by four of the appointees of the Town Administrator/Manager.
That right to appoint by the City Manager was again put front and center in controversy when then Town Manager Michael McLaughlin (yes one and the same) removed a series of Housing Authority Commissioners. McLaughlin removed Richard Buco, which led to the removal of the then Executive Director, and to a series of skirmishes. McLaughlin eventually removed two other Commissioners, and the removals led to such a political uproar that the City passed Home Rule legislation that took the appointments away from the Manager (now Mayor). That is where we sit in Methuen today, with two elected Commissioners, two restricted appointments for the Mayor (from a list provided by Labor and by the Tenants) and one appointment by the Governor. The point here is that where local government gets involved in the day to day administration of the Housing Authority the results are not always pretty.
Finally it is intriguing that an Authority that is regulated by the State and Federal Government, with strict reporting guidelines to those oversight bodies, should now be considered as an entity that should have been regulated by the City of Chelsea. Nothing could be further from the truth, and whatever does come out of this I think it is fair to say that Jay Ash and the City of Chelsea have not had a relapse. If the desire is to provide for municipal oversight of Housing Authorities then people should just say that, and provide the tools for such oversight. If not then they should promulgate rules and regulations that do not allow for such an abuse to go undetected by the oversight and funding authorities at the federal and state levels.