Activist named housing agency's interim director

Permanent replacement sought after ex-chief abruptly resigns

April 24, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Annapolis community activist Dennis Conti will serve as interim director of the city's public housing authority, filling a slot abruptly vacated by Harry D. Sewell less than two weeks ago.

Conti, 57, has familiarized himself with local housing issues as the head of the Clay Street Public Safety Team, a community watch group that monitors several city housing projects.

"He has a long record of being involved through volunteer activities," said Trudy McFall, chairwoman of the housing authority board. "He's just a very bright man and a very talented man at working with people."

Conti said he hopes to offer a steady hand in the wake of Sewell's departure. "My focus is really just to keep things moving with a good headway," he said. The independent Annapolis Housing Authority supervises about 1,100 units with more than 2,000 residents. Sewell was its third director in a three-year period, and the agency is searching for a new chief, a process McFall said could take several months.

She didn't rule out the possibility that the board might ask Conti to become the permanent director. She said some members have said they would like a director with local ties because such a person might be less likely to leave suddenly. Conti said he wouldn't rule out taking the job but said "that is not my immediate focus."

McFall said Conti's most pressing responsibility will be to oversee $7 million in renovations at two closed community centers, one of which - the Harbor House/Eastport Terrace center - is the authority's largest recreational facility.

"Those facilities, especially in the summer, provide an alternative to other activities, more inappropriate activities," Conti said.

He said he also hopes to improve safety by hiring off-duty police officers and matching them with neighborhoods for regular foot patrols.

Conti does not have professional experience with housing issues. He spent almost 20 years, many in management, working for Hughes Network Systems, a satellite communications company. He retired in 2003.

He replaces Sewell, who in less than a year on the job helped boost the agency's fund-raising and repair many of its boarded-up buildings.

Sewell met with McFall and Mayor Ellen O. Moyer moments before resigning but made no mention of his impending departure. He left his resignation letter with McFall, tucked in with a pile of papers that pertained to housing authority business.

The resignation left city leaders confused and wondering when the authority might find some stability.

Sewell replaced Clyde Caldwell, who was fired by the housing authority board in January 2004 after less than a year on the job over differences in management and communication style.

Caldwell's predecessor was P. Holden Croslan, who in her five years as housing authority chief made waves by firing nearly half of the agency's staff and evicting problem tenants. She and the board reached a mutual agreement that she resign in May 2003.

McFall described the period since Sewell's resignation as "a roller-coaster of emotions." But she said she was pleased that Conti agreed to fill in.

"He knows all the issues so well, and he knows much of the staff well," she said. "I expect this to be as smooth a transition as possible."

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