Housing Commission Set to Hire Director

Interim director only candidate to be interviewed on May 12

The Ann Arbor Housing Commission‘s new board is moving ahead with the selection process for its new executive director, but is now considering only one candidate for the job – interim executive director Marge Novak.

Marge Novak

Marge Novak, interim executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, talks with commissioners at their April 21 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Novak will be interviewed by the board at a special meeting on Wednesday, May 12. The meeting, which is open to the public, begins at 6 p.m. at Miller Manor, 727 Miller Ave. It will include an opportunity for public comment.

The board made its decision to move forward with the interview process at its April 21 meeting. That was the first meeting for new board members Ron Woods and Sasha Womble, who were recently appointed by Ann Arbor city council. Council had dissolved the previous board in March, following a consultant’s report that recommended an overhaul of the organization, and a follow-up report written by city administrator Roger Fraser at the end of February.

Jayne Miller, the board’s new president and a former top-level city administrator, supported Novak, saying the housing commission – which oversees the city’s public housing units and the Section 8 program for a three-county region – has transformed over a very short time. “I truly believe it’s because of her leadership,” Miller said.

Background: Housing Commission Reorganized

[Editor's note: The Chronicle has requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act regarding changes at the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, including the dissolution of its previous board by city council at their March 15, 2010 meeting. The city has produced several documents in response to the request. However, the city has still not produced all responsive documents – and has thus continued a previous pattern of failing to produce documents to The Chronicle when they are requested under the FOIA. Once the city meets its obligations under the FOIA, we may be able to report on the housing commission dissolution in a way that serves the public interest better than the city's current response would allow.]

At its May 18, 2009 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council approved $117,040 to hire the consulting firm Schumaker & Company to conduct a needs assessment of the housing commission. The outcome of that work was presented to the city council by consultant Kerry Laycock at its Jan. 11, 2010 working session. [See Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Reorganizes" – a .pdf file of the Schumaker report is downloadable here.]

At that meeting, the housing commission’s board president at the time, Alan Levy, told councilmembers that the board had approved the recommended reorganization by a 3-2 vote taken during a special meeting on Jan. 6. Levy said that over the past few years the commission had struggled with personnel and staffing issues, as well as chronic underfunding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A reorganization was needed to address these concerns, he said.

The Schumaker report described the housing commission as “an agency that is chronically underfunded, focused on crisis management, offering poorly maintained and outdated housing, and insufficient supportive services for a population with significant life challenges.”

From the report:

AAHC has responded to years of underfunding by HUD. HUD has consistently underfunded public housing programs and often makes its allocations decisions late in the fiscal year allowing little time to respond by any means other than cutting expenses. Year after year of expense cutting ultimately leaves the organization weakened and less effective. For the AAHC, this has resulted in staffing shortages, fewer services for residents, and deferred maintenance.

Without a plan to address this chronic instability, bring in additional financial resources, and properly maintain the aging housing stock, the organization is likely to remain sub-optimized and potentially collapse altogether.

The AAHC has been organized to address problems and resulting chaos, not to prepare for the future.

The problems faced by the AAHC have been significant and obviously require the attention of management and the AAHC Board. Nonetheless, at some point, there needs to be a focus on the road forward. AAHC management focused on cost cutting, responding to HUD audits, and personnel problems. The Board appears to have become deeply involved in these issues as well.

A confidential five-page memo to councilmembers from city administrator Roger Fraser – dated Feb. 27, 2010, and obtained by The Chronicle in response to a FOIA request – maintained that board members had failed to address the commission’s chronic problems, and were mishandling the selection process of a permanent executive director. The memo did not explicitly call for the removal of board members, but seems clearly designed to lay the groundwork for that move.

A resolution to remove the board and appoint new members was approved by council at their March 15, 2010 meeting. New members included Jayne Miller and Mark McDonald, a property manager for large multifamily residences. Two members of the previous board were reappointed: local attorney Marta Manildi, and Deborah Gibson, a resident of the city’s public housing who was reappointed only to a one-month term. She resigned the following day.

Subsequently, council appointed two additional board members: Ron Woods, an Eastern Michigan University professor, and Sasha Womble, a resident commissioner to replace Gibson.

The set of documents obtained by The Chronicle under the FOIA suggest that in early March – before the March 15 city council meeting when the housing commission board was dissolved – Ted Annis was pitched the idea of serving on the housing commission board. Annis confirmed in a phone interview with The Chronicle that he was asked by city administrator Roger Fraser to consider serving on the housing commission board. He turned down the offer, indicating instead that he wanted to continue to serve on the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. However, when his AATA term expired on May 1, 2010, he was not reappointed.

April 21 was the first meeting of the newly constituted housing commission board, with all commissioners except McDonald in attendance.

Commissioner Discussion: Hiring an Executive Director

On the agenda for the AAHC board’s April 21 meeting was an item for discussion on the hiring of a permanent executive director. Interim ED Marge Novak left the room before the board addressed this topic.

Jayne Miller

Jayne Miller, president of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission board, is the city's former community services area administrator.

Jayne Miller began the discussion by saying that when she was still with the city and first got involved with the housing commission, it was clear that they needed to improve the organization. [Before taking a job in mid-February as head of the Huron-Clinton Metro Parks, Miller had served as the city's community services area administrator. In that role, she worked with the housing commission as a staff representative.] Union leaders had grave concerns about working conditions, she said, and morale was low. She also heard from residents of public housing, who were unhappy with conditions and services.

Miller reviewed the fact that last year, the city had hired the consulting firm Schumaker & Company to do an operational needs assessment.

In addition to the executive director position – which was open following the retirement of Betsy Lindsley in the summer of 2009 – there were several other vacancies, Miller said, including Teamster and AFSCME union jobs. Marge Novak was hired as interim executive director, and the city negotiated with the unions to hire temporary employees through March of 2010, with the hope that the board could first hire an executive director, who would then be responsible for the other hires.

For a variety of reasons, Miller said, the board wasn’t able to fill the executive director job as quickly as they’d hoped. The board had narrowed the candidates to two – Novak and John Hurt – and were moving ahead with the process when the city council made its decision to dissolve the board.

The documents produced by the city in response to The Chronicle’s request under the FOIA, plus Chronicle conversations with two former housing commissioners – Alan Levy and Dwayne Seals – indicate that interviews of Novak and Hurt had already taken place in mid-February. Levy, the board president, had checked references for the candidates, and the board seemed on a path to decide between Novak and Hurt at a board meeting at the end of March.

At the April 21 meeting, Miller reported that she and Marta Manildi – the only commissioner from the previous board still with that body – had discussed moving ahead with interviews, as well as having candidates take the Thomas Personal Profile Analysis, which Miller said is frequently used during the city’s hiring process. They also planned to ask both candidates to come up with an action plan for the housing commission during their first 120 days on the job.

Miller said she asked Brigitte Burke of the city’s human resources staff to reach out to both candidates. Miller reported that Burke contacted Hurt, who told her he was no longer interested in the job.

The current board now needs to decide how to proceed, Miller said. Novak has been interim director for 10 months, without benefits, sick leave or vacation. The original expectation was to hire a permanent ED by January 2010, Miller contended, and Novak has expressed a desire to know “sooner rather than later” if she’ll be hired permanently.

Manildi then weighed in, and began by describing the situation as “a little delicate.” She didn’t want to step on the toes of the new commissioners, but said she’d very much like to hire Novak as a permanent director. All five commissioners from the previous board were happy with Novak, Manildi contended, but they concluded that they needed to go through a search process. They ended up with two candidates – Novak and Hurt. The candidates had different strengths, she said, but all previous commissioners had acknowledged that both were strong.

Manildi said she had been leaning toward Novak. It’s a plus that Novak has been in the job for 10 months and is familiar with the organization, she said. Manildi also cited Novak’s strong performance on the financial side, her responsiveness to the board and her focus on team building. Novak “is not just good, but really remarkably outstanding,” Manildi said.

Finally, Manildi wanted to make sure that Novak isn’t thought of as just a default candidate. While she can’t say how previous board members would have voted, Manildi said it shouldn’t reflect on Novak that she’s now the only candidate being considered.

Ron Woods

Ron Woods at the April 21 meeting of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission board – his first meeting as a new board member.

Ron Woods acknowledged that his time on the board had been short – the April 21 meeting was his first – but he said he felt he knew Novak from the materials and communications she has provided, as well as from reading the public record. He characterized the board as being at the final interview stage, and said that often at that point there’s only one candidate.

He suggested bringing the process to closure “as soon as we can possibly do it.” He added that given the “dust up” over the housing commission, the residents of public housing should be part of the process – the board needs to hear their views, he said.

Sasha Womble, who was also attending her first meeting after recently being appointed as the commissioner representing residents of public housing, said she agreed with Woods’ assessment.

Miller said she had watched a transformation occur at the housing commission within just a short time. “I truly believe it’s because of [Novak's] leadership,” she said.

Miller suggested that Novak be asked to make a presentation of a 120-day work plan for the housing commission, identifying her goals and actions for the first four months as permanent director. Novak should also take the Thomas Personal Profile Analysis, Miller said, which would give the board information about areas in which she might require additional training.

Before taking a final vote on the hiring, Miller said the board should also provide an opportunity for public comment.

Manildi asked whether they could vote on Novak’s hiring at the special meeting, rather than wait until the board’s next regular meeting on May 19. Woods and Womble supported that approach.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to set a special meeting on Wednesday, May 12 at 6 p.m. to interview Marge Novak for the job of permanent executive director for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. The meeting will be held at the Miller Manor conference room, 727 Miller Ave. The Chronicle has verified that notice of the meeting is posted outside the housing commission offices at 727 Miller Ave.