Labat expects HUD report Monday

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 3, 1999

By LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / July 3, 1999

LAPLACE – Inspectors for the U.S. Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment held inspections Wednesday and Thursday of all public housing developments managed by the St. John Parish Housing Authority.A report of their findings is due Monday to Parish President Arnold Labat and the Housing Authority. A special Parish Council meeting may be calledTuesday to take whatever steps are deemed necessary by HUD’s findings.

HUD received written complaints from residents and officials, and also photographs and a videotape of conditions in the parish’s four housing developments, from rotted doorways, crumbling ceilings, lack of electrical service, rusted stairs and overall dismal conditions.

HUD’s initial response by letter, from HUD’s regional director of the Office of Public Housing Chester Drozdowski, termed the conditions described as “severe neglect and lack of maintenance of St. John the Baptist Parishpublic housing units.”The letter had been addressed to housing board chairperson Sheila Morris, yet Morris told the Parish Council Monday she had not received or seen the letter. Morris told the council she would voluntarily step down, if asked todo so.

Following a closed-door meeting Wednesday with St. John Housingexecutive director Patrina Ester, HUD inspector James Abernathy launched the on-site investigation with the Garyville Oaks Housing Development and followed up with Edgard and Reserve, then concluded Thursday with LaPlace.

Ester had no comment for assembled media outside the housing authority’s LaPlace office, however, HUD spokesperson Marvel Robertson declared the intention of the federal agency is to confirm or deny the allegations.

“That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Ester, who has been employed as St. John Parish’s housing director sinceAugust 1993, personally conducted the inspectors to each housing development.

At Monday’s council meeting, some council members, including Clinton “Rock” Perrilloux and Dale Wolfe, called for the immediate dismissal of the housing authority board members. Councilman Joel McTopy arguedinstead to wait until after HUD’s findings were released.

Letters were sent to board members asking them to step down, following parish attorney Charles Lorio’s advice, rather than firing them outright. Asecond resolution declared if the complaints were proven, and if the housing board members did not voluntarily resign, that they be fired.

The council members voting for sending the resignation request letters to the board included McTopy, Perrilloux, Perry Bailey, Kevin Duhon and Nickie Monica. The sole vote against was Wolfe, who wanted immediatedismissal. Councilmen Ranney Wilson and Steve Thornton were not presentat the vote.

Complaints to the housing board of conditions in the developments, the latest on June 24, were fruitless. A call for Ester’s dismissal was halted,as her attorney said her employment contract could not be discussed in an open meeting.

As the closed-door meeting ensued Wednesday morning, some of those who sparked the investigation, including Wolfe and Residents Council vice president Kalantha Jackson, spoke on the concerns which led them to push the investigation.

Jackson, who initially prepared the videotape for HUD and the Louisiana Congressional delegation, commented, “My main concern is what’s going on with the living conditions.”She added she worked with Morris for months trying to bring the matter to a head.

“Five or six years ago I brought up some problems to Miss Ester, but nothing happened,” Wolfe said. He added the problems include fundsintended for maintenance and repair work never apparently being spent for that purpose.

“We’re going to have to get into the books and see where the money went,” Wolfe added. “They want to turn it around and make it look like we’re thevillains.”However, Wolfe said he was confident that HUD would see the obvious problems and force the hand of the Housing Authority to turn matters around and clean up the mess created.

“We’re going to have a new board one way or the other,” Wolfe said. “Thisboard is catering to the director, not to the people.”Former maintenance employee Peter Jackson said he’s been reprimanded and suspended for asking for tools to work on problems in the housing units. He indicated several units have sheetrock which isn’t water-resistent, leading to fungus and rot.

Other problems include outdated cast-iron plumbing which is deteriorating and rotting out.

He added, “You have people in that office who don’t care about what’s going on outside.”At the Garyville development, with TV news crews trailing closely behind, Ester, Kalantha Jackson and HUD inspector Abernathy slipped past a rotted door frame and into a vacant apartment, then Ester slammed the door on the pursuing cameramen. Inside, a quick, heated argument broke outbetween Jackson and Ester as to whether to allow the cameras inside the apartments.

In the end, the crews were admitted.

From that point, Abernathy and Ester went one way and the news crews began knocking on doors. In 118-A, Markeisha Johnson described how herapartment’s living room and kitchen were without electricity for three months, forcing her to run an extension cord from the bedroom area to provide power to the kitchen.

Housing Authority board member Ronnie Feist commented during the Garyville inspections, “I’m just here to observe,” then added that for the Parish Council to ask the board members to step down was “putting the cart before the horse.”An inspection of the Garyville Developmental Center turned up dangling and exposed electrical wiring and a blocked toilet, according to Jackson.

While the inspections were going on, deputies from the St. John Sheriff’sOffice detail assigned to the development buttonholed residents who were outside. Minutes afterward, each disappeared into their apartments.Jackson charged the officers were harassing the residents to keep them away from the inspector.

Return To News Stories