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Montville Town Council to question housing authority commissioners over complaints

Montville — Christina Dimick became the second Montville Housing Authority tenant to publicly claim mismanagement of the elderly and disabled housing facilities during a Town Council meeting last week.

Dimick last Monday was joined by town Senior and Social Services Assistant DeeAnn Morton, who spoke on behalf of Senior and Social Services Director Kathie Doherty-Peck.

The two doubled down on earlier criticisms made by former housing authority commission member Sierra Davis, who ultimately resigned from her position and spoke to The Day in March, and housing authority tenant Tierney Tully, who spoke to The Day in April. Tully said she was threatened with eviction three times and has been targeted by housing authority leadership after each instance of her bringing up an issue to them.

Since publishing a story in March on issues at the Montville Housing Authority, which oversees two buildings — Independence Village Elderly Housing on Milefski Drive in Uncasville and Freedom Village Elderly Housing on Liberty Road in Oakdale — The Day has heard complaints from multiple authority residents and a resident’s family member. Among their complaints are unjustified raises in rent, threats of additional charges, wanton warnings of eviction and maintenance problems.

“I’m here tonight for 14 individuals who were too frightened to come forward. They pleaded with me, they begged me, and I’m here,” Dimick said to councilors. “I’m here because my rent was raised 70% during COVID with no indication why. I sent a letter to the housing authority asking why. My income went up $11 this year, and they said the former executive director made a lot of mistakes. I’ve also lived there without a lease now for two years. They have refused to give me a lease.”

Dimick said tenants are mocked behind their back for their disabilities and are afraid to speak out for fear of eviction.

Town councilors said they were sympathetic to Dimick’s case. Councilor Billy Caron, who is the senior/social services liaison, said he would seek to bring in authority leadership to answer questions from the council, which he said would be the first concrete step toward addressing the concerns. Caron said he has brought the question of who has oversight of the authority to the council, the town attorney and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

“The council has auditing power, as the town attorney has told me. We also have appointing powers. We also have subpoena powers,” Caron said. “I believe all the councilors are more than willing to call commissioners here for questions because we are the ones to appoint them.”

“We need to do this," he said about calling authority commission members in for questioning, "there’s no other way. That’s the bottom line. Enough is enough.”

Council Chairman Tim May said it’s within the council’s rights to take someone off the authority commission. He said he’s going to convene a public meeting where the council plans on questioning commission members “at the earliest available opportunity in the next week or so to interview and discuss the problems of the housing authority.”

Morton said social services has received “numerous complaints” at the senior center, and staff members feel helpless because “we have no authority over the commission at elderly housing.”

“The complaints and issues are for bullying, putting fear into the senior citizens and disabled at the housing. They’re being charged for maintenance work on their apartments, it’s supposed to be included in their rent,” Morton said during the meeting. “They also have had their rent increased during the pandemic. There’s a lot of bullying, fear. They’re concerned about being homeless, they’re concerned the commissioners aren’t doing their jobs properly or at all. There used to be a director there that oversaw everything. Once that director left, the commissioners took it upon themselves to kind of do whatever they want.”

Without an executive director, a position meant to advocate on tenants’ behalf, the senior center has become a place where residents’ concerns are at least heard, she said.

Morton is not the first to comment on the conflict of interest of having housing authority commissioners Patty Everett and Mike Brower run day-to-day operations rather than an executive director separate from the commission. Orrie Vardar, a CHFA employee, asked authority leadership in a January email exchange to “please provide a timeline on the hiring of an Executive Director for the Montville HA.”

Scott Precourt, a founding partner at US Housing Consultants, a company in New Hampshire, is well-versed in public housing administration. The former New London resident was an expert witness in a class-action lawsuit concerning the New London Housing Authority and its Thames River Apartments.

Precourt said commission members occasionally take over operations of a facility. He said this practice is not advised, but it’s acceptable as long as it’s on a temporary basis while the commission seeks a permanent executive director.

“The commission is there to provide oversight, not to provide management. If they’re doing management, who’s providing oversight?” He said. “The commission should be providing oversight of the director and all of their reports. No one’s policing the police. Now, for example, a commission could approve raises or expenses, which represents a conflict of interest.”

In the absence of an executive director, Everett said she stepped in and handled the typical executive director duties as a volunteer. She asked commission member and resident Brower to help. Authority residents, town staff and councilors say they are concerned that Brower is handling tenants’ personal information. Everett has denied that claim.

Everett also has denied raising rents during the pandemic in the past, and she's said she was surprised to hear accusations of a culture of intimidation.

Though experts say having a housing authority commission member work in the executive director’s role is supposed to be a temporary fix, Everett has been in the position since 2019. She said in early March that the commission had hired a part-time housing authority administrator a few weeks earlier. This person would split 20 to 25 hours a week between the two properties. At the time, Everett said the commission would make a formal announcement about the hire in coming weeks.

Halfway through May, residents still don’t know of any new executive director or, in this case, authority administrator. Everett did not respond to a request to comment.

“It’s important for me at social services and Kathie as the director to work very closely with this person,” Morton said of the new hire during Monday’s council meeting. “We don’t even know who this person is, their credentials, we have nothing on this person at all. We request that information be given so that we can build a relationship with this person and guarantee that our seniors are being taken care of.”

Dimick spoke for about 20 minutes at the council meeting and fielded questions from councilors.

She said residents have been dealing with a water shortage and are expected to carry jugs of water in and out of their homes, which can be difficult for physically disabled residents. She said during the winter, when residents were without power for 36 hours, they were told to come to the clubhouse because there was a generator there.

“How does a man with no legs, or a man on a scooter, or people with walkers trying to push themselves through 18 inches of snow, get to a clubhouse and sit in a hardback chair for 36 hours?” she said. “This is absolutely inhumane. These problems are not being addressed.”

After listing other problems, she asked that the current commission be disbanded.

One councilor, Joseph Rogulski, said Dimick shouldn’t expect action right away.

“I’d advise you to be patient because in truth Sierra Davis wrote to us and talked to us about this in December of 2020. We’ve known about these things for a while. I don’t think any of this is alarming at all. It’s just, the ability to act on it is very difficult,” he said.

Davis resigned from the commission in March, saying commission members had become too involved in the authority's day-to-day operations. 

Caron disagreed with Rogulski’s opinion that Dimick’s comments weren’t alarming.

“This is the first time someone’s really brought it forward like you have and put your name out and really spoke to the council,” Caron said. “We need someone to put a name to this, not anonymous, and you just did that for us, you just gave us the power to say, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you.’ It is alarming to me.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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