At a special meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, board members of the Ann Arbor housing commission deliberated on four finalists for the job of executive director. The position would oversee the city’s public housing and Section 8 programs, at a time of uncertain federal funding and increasing need. Board president Marta Manildi described it as perhaps the most important decision the board will make.
Commissioners praised all four candidates, but Jennifer L. Hall emerged as the leading choice. Four of the five housing commissioners selected her as their first choice in a straw poll at the beginning of the meeting. Hall currently serves as housing manager for the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development. In advocating for Hall, board member Leigh Greden – a former city councilmember – noted that her knowledge of the local community is a strong asset.
But after about 90 minutes of discussion, commissioners decided to move ahead with three of the four finalists: Hall, Damon Duncan and Bill Ward. Both Duncan and Ward have more extensive public housing experience than Hall, primarily with the Detroit housing commission. The other finalist, Nick Coquillard, has served as deputy director of the Ann Arbor housing commission and is now interim director.
During the meeting, much of the discussion focused on the vision, leadership and management styles of the candidates, and how those styles would fit the existing staff focus on teamwork and customer service. As a backdrop to the discussion, the housing commission has seen some dramatic leadership changes over the past two years – including dissolution of the previous board in 2010, and a previous change in executive directors.
At the beginning of the meeting, Ronald Woods, the only commissioner who did not indicate a preference for Hall, asked whether it would be possible to conduct some of their discussion in closed session. He felt it would allow for a more candid exchange of opinions. But Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office informed the board that this was a public hiring process, and needed to be held in public view.
The executive director of the housing commission is one of only four positions in city government that is required to have a public hiring process, McDonald told the board. The other positions are city administrator, city attorney, and executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
The board will take up the hiring decision again at their regular meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 19. The meeting is open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. at Baker Commons, 106 Packard (the corner of Packard and Main) – a housing commission property. It’s possible that commissioners will make a final decision then, or continue the discussion at a later date.
Housing Commission: Some Background
The Ann Arbor housing commission (AAHC) oversees the city’s public housing units, as well as the Section 8 program for Washtenaw, Monroe, and western Wayne counties. Section 8 provides vouchers that subsidize rent for low-income residents living in privately-owned properties. The commission’s public housing units are located throughout the city of Ann Arbor and include Miller Manor, Baker Commons, North Maple Estates, Hikone and Hillside Manor, among several other properties. Much of the funding for these programs comes from the federal U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).
The housing commission has gone through some dramatic leadership changes over the past few years. The most recent executive director, Marge Novak, resigned effective July 29, 2011 to take a position with an affordable housing investment firm. She had been hired for the permanent job in May 2010 after serving as interim for 10 months.
Novak’s hire came less than two months after the city council voted, at its March 15, 2010 meeting, to dissolve the housing commission board and appoint new members. Among other issues, the city administration had been dissatisfied with that board’s progress towards hiring an executive director. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Set to Hire Director"]
Marta Manildi is the only current board member who was part of the previously dissolved board. She is an attorney with Hooper Hathaway, the same law firm that employs Ann Arbor city councilmember Christopher Taylor. Other current housing commission board members include former city councilmember Leigh Greden; Andy LaBarre, a former aide to Congressman John Dingell and current vice president of government relations and administration at the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce; Ronald Woods, an Eastern Michigan University professor who’s married to former Ann Arbor city councimember Wendy Woods; and Gloria Black, a representative for residents of housing commission properties.
There was little communication with the general public about the more recent leadership change at the housing commission, aside from postings on the commission’s website. The Chronicle has not observed any mention of this transition at public meetings of the Ann Arbor city council, for example. The city council’s liaison to the AAHC through this period was Tony Derezinski (Ward 2). He recently stepped down as liaison in order to serve on the city’s public art commission. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who had previously served as council liaison to AAHC, publicly offered to replace Derezinski, but mayor John Hieftje instead nominated Margie Teall (Ward 4) to that position, instead of Kunselman.
The June 2011 AAHC board minutes record that Novak had tendered her resignation by that commission meeting, with AAHC deputy director Nick Coquillard appointed as interim at the July 2011 AAHC board meeting. The job opening was posted in August, and four candidates were selected to be interviewed: Coquillard; Damon Duncan, a housing consultant who previously worked at the Detroit Housing Commission; Jennifer L. Hall, housing manager for the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development; and Bill Ward of the Detroit Housing Commission.
Interviews for the four candidates were held on Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, in a public meeting. The Chronicle requested resumés and other application materials for the candidates, but was informed that the information would be released only in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That request has been filed. Update: Oct. 21, 2011 application materials were provided to The Chronicle. [.pdf of AAHC applicant materials]
Hiring Process: Open Meetings Act
At the start of Wednesday’s special meeting of the housing commission board, Ronald Woods asked whether the state’s Open Meetings Act allowed commissioners to hold any of their discussion in a closed session. In his experience, discussions in closed session result in a degree of frankness that’s not possible in public. It’s not about being secretive, he said, but rather about sensitivity toward the candidates. He also wondered whether confidentiality would be extended to the candidates’ references.
Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office told the board that there are only a narrow set of circumstances that would allow the commission to enter into a closed session. It might be uncomfortable, he said, but the candidate names have been disclosed and the hiring process for this position is public. It’s one of only four such positions in the city that has this kind of public hiring process, he noted. Others include the city administrator, city attorney, and executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to open up this kind of process to the public, McDonald said. He told commissioners they just needed to accept it and move forward, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Initial Preferences: Hall Emerges as Lead Candidate
Marta Manildi, who serves as president of the board, proposed taking a straw poll to see where commissioners fell in terms of their initial preferences. She began by saying her first choice would be Jennifer L. Hall, followed by Bill Ward.
Andy LaBarre also picked Hall has his No. 1 choice, followed by Damon Duncan.
Leigh Greden said his initial assessment was based on breadth of experience, supervisory experience, staff input and the candidate’s local knowledge. For him, Hall came in first, followed by Ward.
Gloria Black also chose Hall as her first choice, then Duncan.
Ronald Woods was the only commissioner who did not select Hall for either of this top two candidates. His first choice was Duncan, followed by Ward.
Commissioners then elaborated on their preferences.
LaBarre described Nick Coquillard, the housing commission’s interim director, as a tremendous asset, and said that he would best serve the organization in his position as deputy director. Ward was impressive, LaBarre said, with great technical knowledge – he’d be a great problem-solver, but not the kind of person to lead the organization.
Duncan gave a terrific presentation, with a strong vision for the housing commission, LaBarre said, but it needed more specifics. Finally, Hall – his first choice – combined the best qualities of the other candidates, LaBarre said, including technical knowledge and leadership. What tipped it for him, though, was her knowledge of the local community, who the players are, and a sense that she’d be able to quickly jump-start the ability of the housing commission to secure new funding.
Woods spoke next, noting that Duncan – his No. 1 candidate – had a strong track record on redevelopment issues and finding alternative funding streams. Duncan is also extremely well-versed in HUD operations, he said, with a diversity of experience in virtually all aspects of public housing. Woods believes that Duncan would be able to develop strong relationships with critical partners, and that he has the vision to take the housing commission to the next level. He has the capacity to develop the Ann Arbor housing commission into one of the exemplary public housing systems in the state, Woods said.
Ward has many of the same qualities as Duncan, Woods said, and he’d also be a strong leader. Coquillard and Hall would be capable, he added. In Coquillard’s case, there would be some growth needed in executive leadership skills. For Hall, her learning curve about public housing issues would be steeper, Woods said.
Manildi began by saying they didn’t have a bad choice – it was comforting to know that any of the four candidates would do a good job. She agreed with the strengths that other commissioners had cited for the candidates, and said she started by looking at her reservations about them. One concern is that Ward, while extremely capable, didn’t articulate a clear long-term vision, especially as compared to Duncan and Hall.
Regarding Duncan, Manildi said her concern is more intuitive. Staff reaction toward him was mixed, as was hers. His forward-looking view seemed too general and philosophical, not grounded in concrete things that the housing commission must deal with. The other question Manildi had related to Duncan’s leadership style, and whether it would be a good fit for the organization. During his interview, she recalled, he’d made a comment that the hierarchy of the staff needs to be respected. To her, that seemed to indicate a view that differs from the organization’s team-building approach. On the other hand, she allowed, it might indicate a good management style. But these concerns caused her to rank Ward above Duncan.
As for Hall, it’s true that she doesn’t know the regulatory framework in rich detail, Manildi said. But she has enough surrounding knowledge and personal capacity that would allow her to fill in the gaps quickly. Hall also had a good manner, Manildi said, and a tremendous amount of useful knowledge.
Greden said he agreed with what everyone had said. He noted that he worked with Hall for many years – Greden is a former Ann Arbor city councilmember – and his experiences were very positive with her work. The housing commission staff and people who spoke during public commentary at the interviews also were positive toward Hall, he said. She’s extremely passionate about affordable housing. She has a vision, and in the past he’s seen her execute her visions time and again.
Greden said that Hall shares the housing commission’s model for client services, its team approach, and its style of working directly with residents of public housing. One concern is that she doesn’t have as much public housing experience. But she does have a lot of HUD experience, Greden said. He didn’t believe that the previous executive director, Marge Novak, had a lot of public housing experience, either. Yet Novak was wonderful, he said. Hall’s other attributes can overcome that lack of experience. Another positive attribute is that she’s local, Greden said. She knows people in the county and city, knows the properties, and knows staff. She’d hit the ground running, he said.
As for his second choice, Greden said he struggled between Ward or Duncan. Staff input caused him to give Ward the edge.
Gloria Black praised all four candidates. Coquillard has dedication and drive. Ward has lots of experience with HUD and public housing. Duncan gave a spot-on presentation, and forced Black out of her comfort zone to look in a different direction – moving away from HUD toward other funding sources. But she questioned his commitment, saying it’s not clear if he’s in it for the long haul.
Hall doesn’t have a lot of HUD public housing experience, Black said, but maybe that’s a good thing. It will be important to make finding non-HUD funding a priority, she said.
Returning to Black’s point about Duncan being in it for the long haul, LaBarre recalled that during the interviews each candidate was asked a question to gauge their long-term commitment to the housing commission. Hall gave the best answer, in his view – she wants to retire from the position. That’s good for the stability of the organization, and other candidates weren’t so firm and definitive.
No doubt Hall would be a capable administrator, Woods replied. His comments are not about being negative toward her, he said. But he challenged his fellow commissioners to separate their familiarity with her, and to place all candidates on an equal plane. They need to look at her as if she’s coming from the outside, just like the other candidates.
As for Hall’s willingness to retire from the position, it might indicate stability and commitment, but you could also look at it as a statement about her eagerness to meet new challenges, he said. Woods again expressed concern about the public setting in which they were discussing these candidates, saying that some things aren’t negatives but might be perceived that way.
Woods felt that Ward and Duncan were equal in terms of staff responses – both had positive and negative comments.
Initial Preferences: Leadership, Vision
Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting focused on leadership styles, and candidates’ vision for the housing commission.
Woods responded to comments from other commissioners about Duncan’s lack of specifics in his interview presentation. To Woods, Duncan seemed like he could be a transformative leader. Based on Duncan’s experience in the public housing sector, he used his presentation to elevate above specifics, Woods said. Woods understood Duncan to be saying that if the housing commission didn’t have a transformative vision for its future, it would never achieve dramatic change.
The other candidates didn’t strike Woods as having that same kind of vision and leadership. And he acknowledged that transformative leaders can get into trouble – not that Duncan would, he added. But often members of an organization aren’t interested in change initially, and it can be difficult to deal with that.
On the issue of Duncan’s description of staff hierarchy, Woods saw that as a positive – he was talking about delegating responsibility.
Black agreed in part with Woods’ assessment. She said she didn’t know any of the candidates personally, so she didn’t view Hall as an insider. What she liked about Hall was her “humanness.” While Duncan comes across as extremely powerful, knowledgeable and a visionary, Black wasn’t sure that fit with the housing commission’s customer-service focus.
Duncan’s presentation was sophisticated, but that wasn’t necessarily a positive. Hall, on the other hand, was ready to admit when she didn’t know something, Black said. That’s what an executive should be – someone who doesn’t walk in thinking they know it all, but who’s willing to grow and learn, she said.
As for Ward, Black didn’t find him genuine and she questioned his commitment to the housing commission. It seemed like he was just looking for a job closer to his home, she said. That gave her some reservations.
Manildi responded by saying that she was satisfied that all four candidates would be committed to the work. Ward had noted that he’s worked for seven years to get the Detroit housing commission out of receivership, and she could understand why he’s ready for a change. [Ward has served as director of compliance for the Detroit housing commission.]
However, this discussion was leading her to reconsider her second-choice preference, Manildi said, switching it from Ward to Duncan. She agreed that the housing commission needs someone with vision, and she liked Woods’ characterization of transformative vision. The board has chafed at the constraints of the housing commission’s dependence on HUD, she noted, but it will be years before they can move away from that funding. In the meantime, they’ll need to continue to work with that agency.
Duncan was impressive and able to clearly articulate a vision for the housing commission, Manildi said. But Hall also had a vision, though it was expressed in a quiet way. Hall was able to move back and forth between concrete details and her vision for the future, which suggested to Manildi that Hall has the ability to keep her eye on the long-term goals while engaging in the day-to-day details necessary to reach those goals.
Manildi wanted to hear from other commissioners about management styles for the candidates. She noted that when she first started her service on the board, the commission was at the end of a period with “terrible problems,” in no small part because of staffing issues related to low morale, poor organization and bad relationships between staff and residents – lots of management-level problems.
After Marge Novak was hired as director and Nick Coquillard as deputy director, Manildi said, there had been a huge improvement. There’s been a building-up of approach and process, she said, and a sense of cohesiveness and teamwork. Her sense was that this environment would be a natural fit for Hall, and that Hall would immediately begin to work well with staff. ”I have concerns about whether Mr. Duncan can do that,” she said.
Manildi acknowledged that she had known Hall previously – the two were in a Leadership Ann Arbor class years ago – and Manildi had a favorable impression of Hall. But she hasn’t worked with Hall, and felt that she’d have the same kind of favorable impressions of Hall even if they hadn’t met prior to the interview. Manildi also didn’t feel it was a bad thing to bring previous knowledge of a person to bear on the decision. She cited Marge Novak as an example – the board knows Novak well, and based on that, they’d likely hire her again if she applied.
LaBarre said he felt that Hall had a solid vision for the housing commission, though it might have been overshadowed by Duncan’s strong vision for bolder action and change. LaBarre said he hated to use dumb analogies, but he felt Duncan presented the chance for a home run, while Hall was more of a solid double. She’d be a strong and safe choice, he said, while Duncan was bolder and more of a chance for greater change. LaBarre said he wasn’t sure if the housing commission at this point needs something big and bold, which also presents a risk if it doesn’t succeed. He’s inclined to err on the side of strong and certain.
Black noted that she’s not familiar with baseball.
Public commentary is typically held at the start and conclusion of each meeting. But midway through Wednesday’s meeting, a staff member – noting that she needed to return to work – asked if she could address the board. At that request, Marta Manildi, the board’s president, opened the meeting to public commentary.
Three people spoke during public commentary. Weneshia Brand, Section 8 housing manager, noted that she had met with each of the four candidates, and they were all very good – she was glad she didn’t have to make the hiring decision. From the staff’s perspective, it’s very difficult to support a new manager who doesn’t have public housing experience, she said. It means that the staff has to provide a lot of education and take on more responsibilities. Without specifying anyone by name, Brand said she’d lean toward a candidate with public housing experience or who has the skill to come in and quickly educate themselves. Specifically, the staff doesn’t have the experience to support a director in making grant applications, she noted – that’s a factor.
Another staff member addressed the board, saying that if staff could make their comments anonymously, they’d be more candid. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable giving her opinion in front of her co-workers.
Suzette Leininger told commissioners that her preferences were for Hall and Duncan. Hall made her feel very comfortable, Leininger said, and if there was a problem, it seemed that Hall would be confident enough to handle it.
Public Commentary: Commissioner Response
Several commissioners responded to the public comments. Black said she gleaned from Brand’s remarks that the new executive director will need to multi-task, and that staff will need support to step outside the box in pursuing a vision for the housing commission. But they will still need to operate with HUD’s rules and regulations, she noted.
LaBarre said he’d like to get more staff input, especially since it seemed that the board wouldn’t be making a decision at the current meeting. Manildi wondered if there was a way for staff to speak confidentially to the board about the candidates, rather than the anonymous comments that had been collected so far.
Woods felt that staff had sufficient opportunity for input – they could always contact human resources if they had additional comments, he said. Greden agreed with that observation. Black wondered why the staff couldn’t simply send commissioners written commentary.
Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office said that if the board wanted additional staff input, he could work with the human resources staff to figure out a way to get it. He wasn’t sure at this point exactly how to do it, but they could work on it before the board’s next meeting.
Manildi said she’d leave it up to the attorneys to decide on a method, but she wanted to extend the time to get staff comments. This didn’t imply that the board will defer to staff, she noted. But staff have a distinct and, in some ways, better-informed perspective, and it was important to get their input, Manildi said.
Initially the board seemed inclined to narrow the candidate list to two: Duncan and Hall. But commissioners ultimately decided to include Ward among the finalists as well, based in large part on his public housing experience, in light of Brand’s public commentary.
Manildi floated the possibility of scheduling another special meeting to continue their discussion. But the consensus was to add the item to the agenda for the board’s next regular meeting, on Wednesday, Oct. 19. That meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Baker Commons, 106 Packard (the corner of Packard and Main). Baker Commons is one of the housing commission’s properties.
Sharie Sell of the city’s human resources department said she could check references on the three finalists and report back to the board. She will also work on collecting more staff input.
It’s possible – but not certain – that the board will make a final decision at that Oct. 19 meeting. The meeting is open to the public and will include opportunities for public commentary.
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