Housing board members wander far from home

Staffers from St. Petersburg fly often, but what do taxpayers get for their money?

By Aaron Sharockman
Published February 1, 2007

PHOENIX — The red sun rising over the Sonoran Desert reveals an oasis of manicured green.

Alongside a golf course and an 83-foot-tall water slide sits the four-diamond Pointe South Mountain Resort.

Hundreds of officials have gathered here to discuss finding homes for the poor.

Harry Harvey and Walt Smyth made the trip for the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. In the last four years, the two men have taken 44 other taxpayer-funded trips.

On this day, the discussion is about how housing authorities can better communicate with the media. Afterward, Smyth said the presentation was “very enlightening, very informative.”

Problem was, he wasn’t there.

The two men who said traveling was critical to their jobs missed nearly half of the three-day conference, which a St. Petersburg Times reporter attended.

Of 11 conference sessions in Phoenix, Smyth skipped six and Harvey skipped four.

“The fact that I didn’t attend every single one, I don’t think that means anything,” Smyth said. “Unless you see that as a waste of taxpayer funds.”

It’s no perk, they say

Not including Phoenix, Smyth has taken 27 trips paid for by taxpayers since May 2003. The cost: $32,592, according to records provided by the housing authority, which doesn’t have the money to provide homes for 1,500 people who have asked.

In that same time, the entire seven-member Tampa Housing Authority board took 18 trips costing $25,016, that agency reported. The seven-member Tarpon Springs board spent $1,598 on travel during that period.

Last year alone, Smyth went on eight trips, including to San Antonio, Texas; Denver, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. All members of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, by comparison, took a total of five trips in 2006.

Smyth, a real estate agent, said the conferences are an opportunity to network and stay informed about developments in public housing.

“I don’t consider the travel a perk,” he said.

Harvey, meanwhile, said much of his travel is related to his work on a national housing board. Harvey took 17 trips paid for by the St. Petersburg Housing Authority in the last four years at a cost of $24,977.

He attended two conferences in Washington, D.C., within six months of each other, for example, costing $3,788. Housing authority commissioners are not paid a salary for their work.

“Going to those conferences really enables me to do my job better,” said Harvey, 63. “I always bring stuff back.”

Life in Phoenix

The most recent conference, hosted by the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, was set at the 640-suite Spanish-Mediterranean Pointe South Mountain Resort.

A Times reporter registered and attended the conference under his own name. Harvey and Smyth were interviewed when they returned.

Each morning started with a breakfast and followed with a series of 75- to 90-minute discussions led by industry leaders and other housing authority officials. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing authorities, was not part of the program.

Among what was:

- Two presentations were led by Ricardo Gilmore, a Tampa attorney who represents the Tampa Housing Authority. He told commissioners they should maintain a file of critical housing authority documents and quizzed commissioners on housing authority acronyms.

- Another session for commissioners focused on job descriptions, even though commissioners don’t typically write job descriptions for housing authority employees.

- One presenter never showed up; a substitute attempted to fill in at the last minute, and two sessions were ultimately combined.

- The keynote speech, given by a self-described corporate peacemaker, focused on the difference between positive and negative energy in the workplace.By the middle of the first day, some attendees were camped in lobby chairs, sleeping or playing word puzzles. A buzz of activity swirled around the resort concierge desk, where conference-goers asked about the next limousine shuttle scheduled to leave for a gambling casino 15 minutes away.

Smyth left the conference early, he said, causing him to miss the last three sessions.

“You have to put this in some kind of perspective,” said Smyth, who has been on the St. Petersburg board since 1995. “I have a job, I have a business. I have to stay in touch with that. There is a time differential between Arizona and Florida.

“I wasn’t out on the golf course or lounging by the swimming pool,” Smyth said.

So where was he during the other three sessions he skipped?

He would not say.

Smyth has not yet processed his expense report.

Harvey said he missed the conference’s last session to catch his flight home. He said he returned to his hotel room for two of the other sessions he missed and was picking up “conference materials” during a fourth session.

Like Smyth, he initially told a reporter he attended one session that he did not attend.

“It was a worthwhile expense with the information received and the report that will be given,” Harvey said. “My attending the conference and reading and getting the material and sharing that with staff — that in itself is a sacrifice.”

More checks proposed

Conference travel is approved by the full housing authority board, though individual expenditures are not.
Board member Deveron Gibbson said commissioners are expected to police themselves.

“The taxpayers expect us to do what’s right,” said Gibbons, who has taken two trips in three years for the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. “If we’re spending their money, we need to try to do what is always in the interest of the taxpayer and the community. If you’re on a trip, or anything, you should be doing the business of the authority.”

Commissioners are asked to give verbal reports from the conferences they attend, but most are usually cursory. Smyth said he has at times submitted more extended written reports. Both Smyth and Harvey say they will make copies of handouts available as well.

Harvey said Thursday that he wants to propose tighter controls on board travel. Commissioners should be asked to file a written report, he said. He even suggested commissioners coordinate so that each session is attended by someone.

“We are going to talk about these types of things,” Harvey said. “There’s some problems in that area. We’re going to work on it.”

The board will meet Tuesday to discuss the fate of Graham-Rogall, a 486-unit project the board is attempting to sell to a condominium developer. Commissioners have said the building is in need of repairs the housing authority simply cannot afford. More than 300 residents will be forced to leave, though the housing authority has pledged help.

Among the sessions both men missed in Phoenix was one explaining how to find a way to pay for major repairs to outdated buildings.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.