Riley's Selection Ends Tenant Voice On Housing Board

March 19, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

More than a decade of tenant representation on Anne Arundel's publichousing board ended with the appointment of James J. Riley, a retired school teacher and former Republican candidate for the House of Delegates.

Riley, a 55-year-old Severna Park resident who ran for theDistrict 31 seat last fall, will fill a year-old vacancy on the county Housing Authority's governing board. His appointment, made Friday by County Executive Robert R. Neall, upset some housing advocates whobelieve a tenant from one of the low-income projects should have been chosen.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist who helped lead a movement for tenant representation in 1977, also criticized the choice. Without a resident on the seven-member board, he said, complaints could take longer to be heard.

"For public housing tobe effectively managed and run, residents should have their say," hesaid.

Riley was selected to replace Stella Benesch, the last board member from one of the seven projects. Benesch, a 73-year-old resident of the Glen Square senior complex in Glen Burnie, retired in February 1990 after serving 15 years with the authority.

Though a self-described "neophyte" with no previous experience in public housing, Riley said he was eager to help turn the troubled agency around. Saddled with high vacancy rates and a 1,685-name waiting list, the authority is scrambling to renovate boarded-up units, some empty since 1988. Housing officials also are searching for a new executive director.

"I've always been interested in the problem of housing, particularly affordable housing," Riley said. "And I've been looking for an area to serve since I retired."

The retired social studies teacher, who ran unsuccessfully for the House, the Coun

ty Council and Congress in the last 12 years, was briefed on the agency's problems by board Chairman Charles St. Lawrence. After an hourlong interview last week, St. Lawrence said he decided to recommend Riley instead of continuing to search for a project resident.

"I haven't given up on it, but we just couldn't seem to recruit a tenant," he said.

Neall spokeswoman Louise Hayman said Riley was chosen for his enthusiasm and "good ideas." The executive wanted to give Riley a chance to serve in county government, she said, and he sought but wasn't selected for the Spending Affordability Committee, created by voters last year.

Citing the authority's high vacancy rates and frequent management turnover, Riley said he realized the position will be "challenging." The first task, he said, is to replace former executive director June Waller, who resigned unexpectedly in January.

One of the seats on theboard was vacant during most of Waller's 20-month directorship. St. Lawrence said he asked her to recruit a tenant, but she never gave him the name of a suitable candidate. Riley was recommended as an alternative by Carl "Dutch" Holland, R-Pasadena.

The appointment leavesthe board without a tenant representative for the first time in 14 years, except during the vacancy.

Spurred by a grass-roots campaignof residents at Meade Village and Freetown, which was backed by former county executive Robert A. Pascal, the General Assembly expanded the authority from five to seven members in 1977. Leara Tyler, a MeadeVillage tenant who was active in the community, became the first resident to serve on the board. Another tenant was to represent elderly residents.

Over the years, the seat reserved for the family projects was filled by an outsider, leaving Benesch as the lone tenant on the board. All board members now are community volunteers, many with executive backgrounds and three from Severna Park.

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