Housing staff attends retreat

O'Malley questions Henson's trip to St. Michael's resort

November 06, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAEL'S -- They gathered at the secluded Harbourtowne Gulf Resort and Conference Center in this Eastern Shore community.

It was a 2 1/2-day retreat for 54 supervisors from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the quasi-public housing agency funded largely with federal funds.

Housing officials said the $13,446 trip -- paid for by the agency -- was designed to lay out a strategy for implementing recommendations for the city's public housing communities.

But Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley questioned the prudence of a lame-duck administrator taking his staff on such a getaway a month before he leaves the job.

"The money might have been better spent for the incoming executives of the housing authority," O'Malley said.

Daniel P. Henson III, the housing authority's executive director, said Washington housing officials took the same trip three months ago. And for Baltimore's housing staff, it was all business yesterday.

Henson said the retreat was the culmination of an almost four-year effort to streamline the housing agency's operations, as ordered by the federal government, which contributes about $200 million a year to agency coffers.

A report issued last year proposed that the agency:

Focus on customer service;

Create public housing communities that reflect typical, successful Baltimore neighborhoods;

Define and focus on its role as an affordable housing and service provider;

Take a leading role in establishing partnerships with government and private agencies.

"If we don't keep the neighborhoods clean and green 100 percent of the time, we will not be able to attract the kinds of residents you want to attract," Henson told those at the retreat.

The retreat comes at a crucial time for the housing authority and other city agencies. Henson and other top city officials in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration leave office Dec. 7, when O'Malley becomes Baltimore's chief administrator.

O'Malley has said that he plans to pick a new housing commissioner, which some housing staff members fear could hamper the successes the city's public housing agencies have had in recent years.

The city's housing commissioner traditionally runs the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, a city agency, and the 1,600-employee housing authority, as Henson does.

O'Malley has said that he has not chosen a replacement for Henson. But he has appointed the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the 14,000-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Schmoke's step-brother, chairman of the committee that will help find a housing commissioner.

Henson indicated yesterday that he is ready to move on to another job, but he appears disappointed that he is leaving the city's housing posts.

"I want to be able to say what we started in 1996 continues," Henson told staff at the retreat yesterday.

The housing authority created a task force in 1996 to look at the city's public housing concerns after Baltimore hit a critical low. The city received a rating in the 60th percentile out of 100 in 1995 because of such issues as vacancies in public housing and the condition of the city-owned buildings.

Henson said the city has reached the 80th percentile and saw the retreat as an opportunity to inspire his staff to reach the 100th percentile.

Using the themes, "We are taking ownership" and "The New Housing Authority of Baltimore City," the staff discussed such issues yesterday as beautifying public housing communities and the budget constraints that hamper efforts to improve housing conditions.

Gordon Brigham, a principal owner of Stockard Engler and Brigham, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., led the discussions during the retreat with charts and graphs as well as role playing and critiques of how housing supervisors balanced the many demands they face. Stockard Engler helps housing authorities throughout the country.

"This isn't Oscar night," Brigham told the group, pointing to a flip chart. "Stay in your job character."

Charles Gaskins, associate deputy director of housing operations, then ran a mock meeting that looked at concerns in the Cherry Hill community.

"I have some concerns about the overall appearance of some of our locations," Gaskins said.

In the 20-minute mock meeting, Gaskins and other staff held a brainstorming session that included ideas like improving the greenery in the community, holding a rally to foster excitement among residents about their community and ensuring that lights on telephone poles were operating.

"Unfortunately, we do have a problem with people shooting them out in that area," one staff member said.

The staff talked about better screening of public housing applicants and ways to keep the housing programs running, regardless of fiscal pressures.

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