She's the new boss at Housing Authority Outspoken official hopes to build trust

February 17, 1993|By Eric Siegel and Melody Simmons | Eric Siegel and Melody Simmons,Staff Writers

On her first day in charge of daily operations at the troubled Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Danise Jones-Dorsey strode into a senior citizen public high-rise apartment building in West Baltimore and proclaimed to the staff, "I'm the new boss."

That's the blunt management style of Ms. Jones-Dorsey, the 40-year-old interim deputy director of the Housing Authority -- an agency with a $70 million budget, a 1,400-member staff and a list of problems ranging from vacant and vandalized units to poor security and drug-related crime.

Agency shake-up

Last month, the Housing Authority's executive director, Robert W. Hearn, hired Ms. Jones-Dorsey at the suggestion of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. She replaced Juanita Harris, who was fired during a shake-up of the authority. While Ms. Jones-Dorsey lacks a college degree and public housing experience, she does not lack confidence.

"What I bring to the table is creative thinking," Ms. Jones-Dorsey, a five-year city employee with a background in private business and community activism, said in a recent interview. "Can we do some things differently? I think we can."

"I do not feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems. I'm intrigued by the complexity," she added.

Some public housing residents, however, are quick to question Ms. Jones-Dorsey's ability to perform her job successfully.

"I have no gripe with her as an individual. But I know she does not know enough about this housing program to do what I feel needs to be done," said Elizabeth Wright, chairwoman of the authority's Resident Advisory Board.

"I would have assumed they would have put someone there with housing experience," added Lorraine Ledbetter, head of the Lexington-Poe Tenants' Council, which includes two high-rises where 67 residents have begun a rent strike.

Ms. Jones-Dorsey sensed the skepticism at a recent meeting with residents but was not bothered by it. "It'll take a while for trust to build," she said.

Blunt style sparks criticism

Ms. Jones-Dorsey's supporters say her confidence and outspokenness are qualities that allow her to relate to people in a no-nonsense, down-to-earth manner. But her detractors describe her as "high-handed" and "dictatorial."

"She's a very smart young lady, but she talks at you and not to you," said Tina Thompson, president of the Fulton Community Association, who nonetheless added, "I think she'll get somebody hopping" at the Housing Authority.

To be sure, Ms. Jones-Dorsey wasted no time in asserting control over communication at the Housing Authority.

One week into her interim job, she issued a gag order for Housing Authority employees, declaring, "Under no circumstances, whether casually or formally, is staff to engage in conversations with media personnel. . . . Breaching of the above directive will be handled swiftly and decisively."

Ms. Jones-Dorsey said she took the six-month job -- which carries a salary of $72,000, a 50 percent raise over her former job with the city's Urban Services Agency -- because, "I am totally and completely loyal to the mayor" and "I am a risk-taker."

Assisting her is Emmanuel Price, a former trouble-shooter for the mayor's "roving team," who also has no housing experience but was appointed to oversee the daily operations of the Housing Authority, which manages 18,300 units.

She is receiving advice in maintenance matters from developer and mayoral confidant Daniel E. Henson and property manager Connie Caplan. And the list of advisers might grow.

"The team may expand again as I move into the organization further," Ms. Jones-Dorsey said.

Meanwhile, local attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock is developing a long-range plan to address the management problems of the Housing Authority.

Ms. Jones-Dorsey said she "learned about leadership very quickly" as the eldest of seven children.

Born in Louisville, Ky., she moved at age 14 to Prince George's County, where her father was a civilian worker at Andrews Air Force Base. A sociology major, she dropped out of the University of Maryland in 1974 to help provide for her son, Joseph, now 20, when her first marriage began to disintegrate.

She spent the next several years working for private Washington-area information technology firms, beginning as an indexer and rising to the position of staff supervisor.

She came to Baltimore in 1979 to be with her soon-to-be second husband, Rodger Dorsey, a personnel officer for a private technology firm.

After taking two years off from work to be a stay-at-home mother for her second child, Robert, now 10, Ms. Jones-Dorsey went to work as a community liaison for small businesses in Northeast Baltimore.

From 1986-88, she worked as a financial aid administrator at the beleaguered Ron Thomas Schools of Cosmetology, which last year lost its eligibility to administer federal guaranteed loan programs because of a high student default rate.

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