HUD, parish officials come to terms

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 7, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / September 7, 1999

LAPLACE- The issues of authority and roles in the St. John Public HousingAuthority were ironed Thursday in meeting at the New Orleans office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.HUD public affairs officer Marvel Robertson said, “The meeting was very productive and went a long way in resolving the issue as to the roles of staff, board of commissioners and the Parish Council with respect to the housing authority.”St. John Parish Council attorney Walter Willard was also pleased with themeeting.

“It was an excellent meeting, ” he said. “HUD has confirmed that the St.John Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is duly sworn in and installed with Ms. Sheila Parquet Morris as its chairperson.”The existence of the new board was in doubt because New Orleans HUD director Chester Drozdowsky had questioned Willard’s right to swear in the new board last week. St. John Housing Authority attorney WilliamO’Regan also doubted that Willard could swear the board in.

However, Willard, who has been a notary public for 14 years, disputed that claim.

“Each notary public shall have the authority,” Willard read from the state statutes, “to administer oaths in any parish in the state.”Willard, who was once a judge in New Orleans and is also the attorney for the St. Charles Parish Housing Authority, was adamant about his rights. “Ihave even administered oaths to two housing board commissioners in St.

Charles Parish.”However, HUD did spell out other roles in the parish housing authority.

Robertson said, “The Parish Council does not have any specific role to the housing authority, however, Mr. Labat does have the authority to fire andappoint members of the Board of Commissioners.”The meeting, attended by Drozdowsky, HUD attorney John Munday, Willard, Parish President Arnold Labat and Councilmen Dale Wolfe, Clinton Perrilloux, Perry Bailey and Steve Thornton, was the result of a four- month controversy over the St. John Housing Authority. Since May, when public housing tenants complained to HUD about mismanagement and lack of maintenance in housing units, the parish has been involved in a very complicated and contentious debate over who has authority over the St. John Housing Authority.The Parish Council hired Willard and launched an investigation which resulted in the firing of the Board of Commissioners, except for Morris.

Labat then fired Executive Director Patrena Ester and appointed a new Board of Commissioners. As a result of Ester’s dismissal, the housingauthority office was closed for several days. When Labat went into theoffice to try and get it open to serve the public housing tenants, he, Parish Administrator Pat McTopy, Labat’s secretary and Morris were served with warrants for criminal trespassing.

Labat said HUD is looking into the trespassing charges.

“They didn’t know anything about the charges,” he said. “It’s all a big mix-up.

“HUD recognizes that as parish president, I can take over to maintain the health and safety of public housing tenants in case of emergency.” Labat didn’t seem too concerned about the charges. He still has to appearin court Nov. 11.While HUD recognized that Labat could act in case of emergency at the housing authority, it said he did not have the legal right to fire Ester.

That can only be done by the Board of Commissioners, so Ester is still executive director.

The Board of Commissioners’ first meeting is slated for Aug. 8 in theParish Council chambers.

Willard said Ester is working without a contract and can be fired at any time by the board.

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