Housing board fires Ester, others

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 15, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / September 15, 1999

LAPLACE – The St. John Parish Housing Authority Board of Commissionersfired Executive Director Patrena Ester, Assistant Executive Director Clara Lewis and general counsel for the Housing Authority William O’Regan III Monday. The board also hired Walter Willard as its temporary counsel.The first meeting of the new board started with a surprise when Chairperson Sheila Morris announced that new commissioner Thomas Stayton had handed in his resignation on Friday. Replacing Stayton wasEula Young, a deputy assessor for St. John Parish. Young was sworn in byO’Regan.

“He told me that he had just retired and this would be too much work for him,” said Parish President Arnold Labat, who appointed Stayton to the commission. “This whole thing had turned into a lawyer against lawyercontroversy and he didn’t need this.”Three of the five commissioners were present at the meeting, Morris, Young and Pedro Francisco. As the first order of business, they electedMorris as chairperson and Young as vice-chairperson. Absent werecommissioners Rev. Alexander White and Stella Barnes.The basis for the termination of Ester, Lewis and O’Regan, according to the board, was the way O’Regan and Ester handled Lewis’ contract. Lewis wasgiven a contract on Sept. 1, 1999 that gave her the same terms as Esterhad in her contract. In the contract, drawn up by O’Regan, Lewis wouldwork for the Housing Authority until December 2000. Like Ester, if hercontract was terminated before that time, she would have to receive the rest of her salary and benefits within 30 days of her termination, or else she could sue for the amount she was originally owed, about a $250,000.

The Board of Commissioners was angered over O’Regan’s role in Lewis’ contract, members saying they felt that he should have informed them of the contract before it was signed by Lewis and Ester.

Willard said, “This was a secret and probably illegal contract. Plus, anycontract has to be ratified by the board.”O’Regan told the board that at the time he drew up the contract, he was under the impression there was no Board of Commissioners, and since he was the attorney for the Housing Authority he was also under the authorization of Ester. Ester, under the law, has total control over thehiring and firing of Housing Authority employees.

Young wondered at the timing of the contract.

“Why was it necessary to do the contract now?” she asked.

“Because, ” replied O’Regan, “I was asked to do it by the executive director and it is my job to do as she asks, if it is legal. I believe Ms. Lewis’contract is valid.”After a short recess for the purpose of retrieving Lewis’ contract at the Housing Authority office, Morris informed O’Regan that the new Board of Commissioners had been sworn in on Aug. 26, five days before Lewis’contract was drawn up.

O’Regan said it didn’t matter when the board was put in place. Legally,Ester was in charge of all hiring of Housing Authority employees.

Young wanted to know why Lewis needed a contract since she had been a Housing Authority employee since 1993.

Lewis said it was because she was an unclassified employee.

“The Civil Service told me I needed to protect myself,” Lewis testified to the board. “I have no civil service rights, and the contract was in my bestinterest.”This did not satisfy Young.

“Everybody has been playing a game, which you, Mr. O’Regan are part of. How come you didn’t know the board was in place?” O’Regan replied, “Under the law it doesn’t matter.””Why do we need the board then?” retorted Young.

“To set housing policy and to hire and fire the executive director. That isall,” responded O’Regan.

Young then made a motion that the contracts for Ester, Lewis and O’Regan be terminated. The motion passed unanimously 3-0, and at 10:23 p.m. allthree were asked by Morris to turn in their keys to the Housing Authority office and return all cars and vans that belonged to the Housing Authority.

The contracts of Ester and Lewis is what swayed Francisco and Young.

“Mr. O’Regan should have known we were in place before he wrote thatcontract,” said Francisco. “The contract of Ms. Lewis was illegal.”Young agreed. “If the board was in place, why did he tell us that the boardwasn’t in place? There were just too many unanswered questions.”Morris’ reasons went a little farther.

“Failure to cooperate with the board, and their arrogant attitude influenced my vote,” she said.

O’Regan was pragmatic about his dismissal.

“They didn’t need a reason to get rid of me,” he said. “Lawyers serve at thepleasure of their clients. It’s their decision and I respect that. I don’tharbor any hard feelings. They need a lawyer they can feel comfortablewith.”Ester’s lawyer, Robert Barnett, said there is a possibility of a lawsuit because she was fired without cause.

“We can sue for a variety of reasons. There was a lack of evidence and alack of specificity of charges,” he said. “But we will sit on it for awhile. Ihave to talk to HUD and see what they say.”When asked how he felt about the latest events, Francisco said, “I don’t want to hurt anybody, but the only solution is to clean things up and start from the beginning.”

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