“I was shocked,” Alan Levy says. “I didn’t deserve this.” Levy, a retired U-M housing official, had thought that when he got back from vacation at the end of March, he’d lead the Ann Arbor Housing Commission in hiring a new executive director. Instead Levy found a form letter from the mayor thanking him for his service and a message on his machine telling him that city council had voted unanimously to remove the entire commission.
Levy never saw it coming–and when he emailed Tony Derezinski, council’s liaison with the commission and sponsor of the resolution, he never heard back.
“It was a strong move but I felt that it was necessary,” Derezinski tells the Observer. “Alan Levy worked hard on being a good chair, but they were in perpetual crisis, and he had to focus on crisis management.”
Levy doesn’t entirely disagree. “The whole time I was there, we never had a chance to do anything because very intense personnel issues were all-consuming,” he says. But, he adds, until last year, the city “paid almost no attention to the housing commission. Then Jayne Miller [the city’s head of public services] comes in and pays a lot of attention.”
Miller told her bosses what she saw, and they hired consultants to produce a “needs assessment” on the agency. Their report concluded that the board had “failed to provide adequate leadership to the agency…the Board must define a vision that shapes organizational priorities [and] we found no evidence of the Board having any discussions at this level.”
“The report also called for hiring a new permanent executive director,” says Derezinski. “It needed prompt action, and they didn’t give it prompt action.” The board had hired Marge Novak as interim executive director last June, but Levy delayed hiring a permanent director until after the consultants formally presented their final report in February.
“I do regret we didn’t move faster,” Levy says. “But they hadn’t hired a new executive director in fifteen years, and they had no experience in how to do it, so it took us longer.” And, Levy insists, it didn’t take them all that long. “I think that’s a crock. We got the final report, and I was fired three weeks later. Does city council move that fast?”
Dwayne Seals, another fired commissioner, has his own theory: it wasn’t that the board didn’t move fast enough, “it’s just that we’re not going to vote on the person the mayor wanted to be executive director,” Seals charges. “Marge is very intelligent and capable, and she did a great job. But this guy [William Hurt, the other finalist] blew us away. We had set a meeting to hire him, and before we could, they cleared the board out.”
“I wasn’t concerned that the board might not make a good choice, but that they might not make it soon enough,” responds mayor John Hieftje. “But that was just one task of many they needed to accomplish, and it was not the central issue.” Asked why council took the unprecedented step of removing the commissioners, Hieftje offers a platitude: “We wanted to make a fresh start.”
City administrator Roger Fraser is blunter. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they were about to violate their own bylaws about meetings. They were about to conduct a meeting in a coffeehouse, and they had already had two meetings in restaurants…My fear was what they did in March wouldn’t be sustainable legally because they had violated the Open Meetings Act.”
Council appointed new commissioners, including chair Jayne Miller–who recently left the city to become executive director of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority. Fraser counts off what he expects from them: “One, development of a long-range plan; two, establishment of capital goals; three, establishment of new relationships between the housing commission and their service providers.”
The administrator says he expects the new board to pick a permanent executive director in “May or June if they pick one of the two candidates already interviewed, longer than that if they decide they have to conduct a new search.
“We should have been paying more attention before,” Fraser acknowledges. “We’re going to pay a lot more attention now.”