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Editorials • June 5, 2007

Berkeley housing chief quits amid scandal

Berkeley housing chief quits amid scandal

Berkeley official oversaw agency that allegedly mismanaged $25 million

By Doug Oakley, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Inside Bay Area

Article Last Updated:06/06/2007 07:49:59 AM PDT

 

Berkeley Housing Department director Steve Barton resigned Tuesday, the latest person to leave in the wake of a scandal that has rocked the city since the disclosure the housing authority mismanaged $25 million in federal funds, using some of it to pay rent for at least 15 dead tenants.

Barton, who worked for the city for eight years, oversaw four divisions in the housing department including the Berkeley Housing Authority, which has been in "troubled status" with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2002.

Berkeley has been ordered to fix the authority by July 1 or step aside so HUD can take over the rent subsidy program for 1,800 low-income residents.

Barton's resignation comes at the same time City Council Member Gordon Wozniak is pushing the formation of an independent committee to determine how the authority "became a chronic, failed agency" and why it took years to uncover staff wrongdoing.

A memo from City Manager Phil Kamlarz to Mayor Tom Bates and the city council late Tuesday says Barton resigned and Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna will manage the department in the interim.

"We believe in holding people accountable to a high standard, and because of that we will be making some management changes as well," Kamlarz says in the memo.

Barton's resignation became effective immediately.

In an interview right before his resignation was announced, Barton said he "would absolutely welcome some sort of systematic, independent unbiased inquiry into the history of the housing authority and its problems. There's a lot to learn, and it's something I've thought about a lot."

He could not be reached later in the day to indicate whether he had already resigned when interviewed.

Barton, who oversaw several housing authority managers beneath him who came and went, said the agency jumped from one crisis to the next, "sometimes with multiple crises at the same time.

"The organization was taken for granted," Barton said. "The housing authority had a collection of many, many problems and we didn't solve all of the problems. There are a lot of things to be said as to how come, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have taken different approaches."

In his memo to the council, Kamlarz praised Barton for increasing the city's affordable housing, but added "it was ultimately his and my job to ensure that the low-income residents of Berkeley were well-served by their housing authority."

Two investigative reports released last month by Kamlarz and the city attorney detailed years of abuses uncovered by current housing authority manager Tia Ingram, who is being recommended to head a new agency the city wants to form to do the housing authority's duties.

The two reports recommended firing all 22 staff members, some of whom allegedly tried to obstruct an investigation of the agency.

In addition, the reports recommend dissolving the housing authority's governing body, which consists of city council members and two other Berkeley residents, and appointing a new, independent governing body.

Information about problems within the agency — including how landlords got paid federal rent subsidies for tenants they didn't have and how agency staff tried to impede an investigation — has been sent to the HUD inspector general, who can then refer the matter to federal prosecutors.

One of the crises the housing authority faced was the threat of going bankrupt when market-rate rents skyrocketed during the dot-com boom and Berkeley landlords started dropping out of the program "in droves."

Under HUD's Section 8 program, the housing authority pays the difference between the actual rent and a maximum percentage of a tenant's income that goes to rent.

Funding for the authority decreased as landlords dropped out and the number of Section 8 contracts to landlords plummeted from an average of 1,800 to 1,260 in 2001.

"We did focus in on that and solve that piece of it," he said. "Now the numbers are back up to 1,800."

Barton said part of the problem in overseeing the housing authority division was that he was spread too thin.

"Berkeley is a very activist city and they want us to take on as much as is humanly possible, and many city departments are stretched in terms of what they are trying to do," Barton said. "There are tradeoffs. You can do a small number of things at a high standard of excellence or you can do more things and hopefully do them all OK."

Before Barton resigned, Wozniak, who is asking for an investigation into the agency, said the "buck really stops with the city council and the housing authority. We give directions to the city manager and the housing director. I don't think we took (problems) seriously enough."

On the other hand, Wozniak said, Barton was the manager of the department.

"To be fair, Steve was the closest in management and he was immediately responsible," Wozniak said. "From my observation, he had a very full plate, he works very hard. There certainly will be people calling for Steve's firing, but that's a personnel matter. Maybe we should be fired, I don't know."

 

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