Firing back: Axed exec a whistleblower?
The departure of embattled former school superintendent Scottie Griffin made headlines for weeks. But what about the other public executive recently pushed from his post?
It took the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority about $20,000 and five months to find a new executive director in 2004. A national search drew 100 applicants, and after a criminal background check, psychological evaluation, and three different interviews, Paul Chedda got the nod. Nine months later, he was fired.
But Chedda isn't going quietly. Calling himself a whistleblower, he accuses some commissioners on the Housing Authority board of corruption, and he's taking his complaints to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He's also threatening to sue.
A three-decade legacy of problems at the Housing Authority came to a head last winter when some residents had to go without heat and hot water. "We haven't had good management of the Housing Authority for 15 years," Kendra Hamilton, a commissioner and city councilor, told one local reporter in April. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that [Chedda] will weather it and stick with us."
A month later, Chedda was out. A postmortem in the Daily Progress blamed his inability to accept criticism and suggested that his dramatic reorganization of the maintenance department left too few staff to fix the boilers. Chedda was listed as unavailable for comment.
But he's commenting now. In an exclusive interview, Chedda, who spent five years as director of housing for Catholic Charities of Long Island, offers his own theory about his ouster: small-town politics. "It's like incest over there," he says.
For starters, Chedda sees a conflict in Hamilton's double-duty as a councilor and as a member of the Housing Authority commission. Moreover, he's upset that the commission voted to allow Management Services Corporation, run by Commissioner Rick Jones, to perform repair work from mid-April to mid-May. (Jones did, however, disclose the potential conflict to the Board and abstained from the vote.)
Chedda says that commissioners have bent the rules to benefit their friends and family. He waves a sheaf of emails (already numbered as exhibits in the threatened lawsuit), detailing complaints about a staff member who allegedly passed over needy families to get her own family into subsidized housing. "They would skip over people, if it was a friend," he says. The employee was fired.
Another series of emails show a commissioner adding a family member to the lease of a public housing unit without including the family member's wages in household income, an action which would have resulted in higher rent. (Chedda allowed the emails to be read but not copied.) The commissioner says the allegation is false.
Chedda's also emphatic that he did all he could to prevent residents in public housing from going without heat this winter. The boiler was replaced at Crescent Hall, space heaters were brought in, and when heat couldn't be restored quickly, tenants were relocated at the Authority's expense. Chedda says this winter's 30 complaints about heat were fewer than last year. There was a backlog of 325 total unfilled work orders when he came, he claims: "I hired people to solve those because the current maintenance people weren't doing it. They made it look like I created it. It was there."
Chedda's accusations of wrongdoing overlay a stronger current of complaints about general malaise, infighting, and incompetence at the Authority.
The Housing Authority, for example, has been leasing a parking lot on Levy and Sixth Street to the city for just $1 per year. "It is a parking lot smack in the middle of the city– very valuable," says Chedda. "That's just not good management."
Moreover, he alleges, the commissioners micromanaged while failing to fulfill basic responsibilities like maintaining minutes for committees meetings. Hamilton foisted a friend on him as a potential maintenance manager, he complains, and she pushed her landscaper for landscaping contracts.
Hamilton responds that she was only trying to help the new executive director find workers. "I didn't insist that these people be hired," she says. "I was trying to be helpful. If I was micromanaging, I would like to know how come I didn't know 21 people were fired from the Housing Authority by Mr. Chedda."
And as for the Levy parking lot, Hamilton says, "He should have said something if he thought the city should pay more. Since he never brought the matter before the board for discussion, I can't even say if it's true or not."
By April, an "email war" between Chedda and Karen Waters, head of the Quality Community Council, and his five-page response to one resident's complaints had put Chedda in the hot seat. Ironically, it was a mostly positive written performance evaluation that touched off the split.
"We hired you because we thought you're the right person for the job, and we still think so," the Commissions wrote in early April. "Your efforts have put us on the right path to becoming a well functioning agency."
Yet Chedda was incensed about the evaluation, which also included criticism over budget concerns, delinquent rents, and a community room remodel. He viewed the evaluation as further "micromanagement" and fired back a seven-page response.
"I am not your subordinate," he wrote. "This mentality needs to change." He added ominously, "I must make clear that I have to give some thought to my continued employment."
The board responded with a written reprimand on April 29. A week later, Chedda contacted HUD, and three days after that, he was fired.
In his letter to William Miles, HUD's Richmond director, Chedda wrote, "... while I am sure that this letter will result in my termination from the housing authority, I strongly believe that the welfare of the public housing and Section 8 programs, as well as that of the residents of Charlottesville, require me to bring this to your attention."
Commission chair Howard Evergreen insists Chedda was not fired in retaliation. He was let go because his "goals and objectives vary greatly from our goals and objectives," the board wrote. Evergreen adds that the decision, which granted Chedda six months' pay, was unanimous.
Charlottesville's Authority is already designated by HUD as a troubled agency because of its continuing failure to meet reporting standards for the "Section 8" voucher program. If the Authority doesn't resolve the problem within five years (it's already been two and a half), HUD will take over.
HUD has asked the Authority to carry out an internal review in response to new complaints. Commission chair Evergreen says the Authority is reviewing the new, technically anonymous charges, but both he and Hamilton aren't worried about Chedda's threats of legal action or attempt to bring HUD scrutiny.
"The HUD investigation will point out areas where we need to improve our performance," says Hamilton. "In terms of wrongdoing, I don't think there is any. Whatever wrongdoing they might find, it occurred on Mr. Chedda's watch."
They are optimistic about a new pool of applicants (from a local ad this time). A closed board session on June 7, just past the Hook's deadline, could produce a new director.
Whatever the results of the review, Chedda's complaints reveal primarily that the problems underlying the Authority run deeper and wider than previously thought. But the two thousand people relying on public housing in Charlottesville don't need anyone to tell them that.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO