St. Petersburg Housing Authority fires back at Kriseman, asks court to stop board firings

St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love is seen during a February board meeting. The housing agency is asking a judge to block Mayor Rick Kriseman from removing commissioners from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority governing board for failing to properly oversee the agency. [Chris Urso]

ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s housing agency is pushing back hard against Mayor Rick Kriseman’s efforts to oust three members of its governing board, filing a lawsuit to block him and moving ahead Tuesday with a $22 million construction deal to redevelop Jordan Park.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority’s lawsuit accuses Kriseman of illegally seeking to remove housing agency CEO Tony Love by replacing board members with people who will “follow his directive to terminate the CEO.”

It wants the court to stay Kriseman’s recommendation to remove the three board members, which is scheduled to go before City Council on May 16.

The lawsuit claims the “neglect” and “misconduct” Kriseman cited as his grounds for removal are just a pretext to indirectly bring about Love’s termination. It accuses Kriseman of an "unlawful "encroachment on the housing agency’s independence’’ and warns it could delay community housing projects .

“The city wants to put people on the board (whose) first priority is to remove Mr. Love because (Kriseman) disagrees with your decision to allow Mr. Love to stay,” the agency’s attorney Charley Harris told board members at an April 10 emergency meeting.

The three members were among the board majority that on Tuesday approved the next step in redeveloping Jordan Park. The deal with Fort Myers builder Brooks and Freund will rehab 206 homes and build a 60-unit apartment block.

But officials acknowledge the uncertainty created by the lawsuit could affect the project’s financing. The housing agency is still securing an underwriter and will then ask the Florida Housing Finance Corp. for an award of tax credits, which can be sold to help pay for construction.

"To say it would have no impact is something I couldn’t say," said Marianne Edmonds, a senior managing director with the Public Resources Advisory Group, which is advising the housing agency on the project.

Last week, Kriseman formally started the legal process to remove board chairman Harry Harvey and board members Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White for what he deemed “misconduct” and “neglect of duty.”

State law gives Kriseman the authority to recommend appointments and removals of Housing Authority board members. Board members can be removed in cases of “inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” The agency is otherwise autonomous and its seven board members, who serve on a voluntary basis, provide the only oversight. That includes the hiring and firing of the CEO.

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The city has sent a report to all three detailing a set of “six charges,” such as allowing the agency’s CEO to live in an apartment designated for low-income families and failing to follow Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law. Harvey and Davis also failed to disclose complaints made by senior staff about bullying by Love when they recommended his annual pay raise, the report states.

Sherman White’s removal is also based on repeated absences from meetings. She was appointed by Kriseman in 2017 but missed five meetings in 2018 and was late twice.

Kriseman earlier this year replaced two board members by declining to renew them for a second term. The mayor ordered city legal staff to review the performance of the agency’s board after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found members approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love in 2017 even though some members complained they hadn’t seen his evaluation.

The Times also found that in 2016, Love lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families and used agency funds to pay for his furniture and electric bills. The CEO was earning $140,000 per year at the time.

Love said the stay was in lieu of his contract’s relocation package, which required the agency to pay his rent for six months. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t agree and cited the agency for misuse of low-income housing.

The housing agency’s legal case is likely to center on comments Kriseman made in February in the wake of the Times report about the board’s approval of Love’s pay raise.

"I have lost confidence in these board members, and of even greater significance, I have zero confidence in Mr. Love’s ability to effectively lead this organization," Kriseman said in a statement. "As such, I will only recommend for appointment new commissioners who are equally troubled by Mr. Love’s job performance."

City spokesman Ben Kirby said the city can’t comment on the housing agency’s litigation.

In an affadavit filed with the lawsuit, Board chairman Harry Harvey — one of the three facing removal — said he believes Kriseman wants to gentrify the area around Jordan Park, putting him in direct competition with the housing agency, which is looking to buy more land to build more low-income housing.

"I am very concerned that Mayor Kriseman’s actions are his attempt to gain control over the operations of SPHA which by its mandate is supposed to be separated from politics and any type of political control," Harvey testified.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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