State and federal investigators are reportedly looking into the hiring last fall of the Warren Housing Authority’s executive director, after four members of the agency’s five-member board of commissioners raised concerns that she was given a contract improperly written and signed without their knowledge.
Meanwhile, three of those members are themselves being investigated by the State Attorney General at the behest of another board member, who alleges that they willfully broke state law by meeting improperly in bringing their concerns to the town manager and town council.
The issue dates back nearly a year.
Carol Anne Costa, a former head of the Johnston Housing Authority and the Scituate Democratic Town Committee, was hired last September after the retirement of former executive director Claire Martins, who served as executive director for more than 30 years.
While the commission voted at the time to choose her as the new executive director, four members complained that soon after, board chairman Frank Mansi signed a contract with Ms. Costa that had not been reviewed by them, as commission by-laws require. The new contract included a $10,000 raise, bringing her salary to $65,000, plus additional benefits not given to the previous director.
The contract was signed by Ms. Costa and Mr. Mansi on Wednesday, Sept. 18, and witnessed by Ralph Pari, a housing authority consultant. Soon after, commissioners Alfred DeAngelis, Robert Remy, Jeanne Cotta and Ray Rabideau started asking questions, first verbally. By February, the four had signed a memo asking why they did not have a say in the contract’s construction, and asking that it be voided:
“The board feels that due process was not property served as not one of the members of the board (apart from Mr. Mansi) was able to see, comment and most importantly vote on any terms in the contract,” the four wrote in the memo dated Thursday, Feb. 27.
“The contract was never made available to us and was improperly signed by the chairman (Mr. Mansi) without being evaluated through proper procedures. The board seeks to have this contract voided and reworked.”
Documents from the following months show that while they asked questions, they received few answers. The board stopped holding regular meetings after February, though monthly meetings are required under the by-laws, and by July board members wrote that they were having trouble communicating with Mr. Mansi or William Conley, the housing authority’s attorney.
Enter William Ryan
On Tuesday, June 10, a new player who did not share the trio’s concerns, and would later challenge them legally, entered the picture.
William “Billy” Ryan, a retired Warren police officer and former head of the Warren Democratic Town Committee, was appointed to the board of commissioners by a split vote of the Warren Town Council, upon the resignation of Mr. Rabideau. Council president Chris Stanley, a Republican, and Democratic councilors David Frerichs and Cathie Tattrie voted for him, while independents Joseph DePasquale and Scott Lial voted against. Also applying for the post were Louis Rego, a developer, and William Kemp, a retired contractor.
When town councilors asked Mr. Ryan why he wanted to serve, he said he had met with and been “impressed” by the new executive director.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve been working out,” he said. “When I sat down with the director, she explained it to me and I jumped right at it. She asked me if I would be interested in (serving) and I said ‘Yeah.’”
On Wednesday, July 16, Mr. DeAngelis, Mr. Remy and Ms. Cotta delivered a letter to Warren Town Manager Thomas Gordon and Mr. Stanley, in which they asked for an investigation of the hiring, noted irregularities with financial reporting inside the federal and state-funded authority, questioned the authority’s treatment of union contract negotiations and raised other concerns, including their knowledge of closed door meetings between Ms. Costa, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Pari.
“We have not had a meeting for the past four months,” they wrote. “We strongly feel that the direction of the current Chairman and Director is self serving and sell preserving. We have tried to manage this internally but have repeatedly met with resistance and refusals. We have come to feel powerless and respectfully request your assistance.”
Mr. Gordon said this week that he would not comment. However, Mr. Stanley explained that since the housing authority is funded by state and federal agencies, including the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, “investigation is out of our purview.” However, he said, the letter was forwarded to town solicitor Anthony DeSisto, who in turn contacted “the appropriate state and federal agencies.”
“From what I understand there are state folks and federal folks who are looking at it,” Mr. Stanley said, declining to cite those agencies involved.
Open meetings complaint
The letter had one unintended consequence: Mr. Ryan filed an open meetings act complaint.
The Rhode Island Open Meetings Act states that any majority or “quorum” of a public board meeting in private constitutes a violation of the law. Soon after the trio’s letter to Gordon and Stanley was sent, Mr. Ryan filed a formal complaint against the Warren Housing Authority with the state attorney general, alleging that commissioners DeAngelis, Remy and Cotta met in private to draft and sign the letter and thus, violated the law.
“On July 17, 2014 I had the opportunity to question Commissioner Cotta, and she admitted to me that all three met together in Andreozzi Hall (at the Housing Authority’s Kickemuit Village on Libby Lane) to sign the letter and they agreed to send to the Town Council President,” Mr. Ryan wrote in his complaint. “This is how I along with the Commission Chair, Frank Mansi discovered these secret meetings. This admission I contend is concrete evidence of a willful act to violate the open meetings law.”
This week, Mr. Ryan said he can’t speak about Ms. Costa’s contract as he was not on the board when the document was signed. But he believes she is doing a fine job. He said he filed the complaint against his fellow commissioners “to stand up for her.”
“I think she’s doing a fantastic job,” he said. “She has foresight when everyone else in this town has hindsight. If (the complaint) doesn’t go, it doesn’t go. But I feel I did what I had to do for her and the 300 people that live down there” at Kickemuit Village.
Ms. Costa declined to comment this week, saying the matter is in the hands of the authority’s legal counsel.
Mr. Conley is scheduled to meet with the three commissioners this coming Monday, Aug. 18, to prepare responses to Mr. Ryan’s complaint. And a commission meeting has been called for Thursday, Aug. 26, after one scheduled for last Thursday, Aug. 5 — the first since February — ended with no discussion. That meeting had been called to discuss “the job performance of and the employment contract for the executive director,” but Mr. Mansi said it was called improperly and did not conform to posting requirements. Therefore, it was adjourned, he said.
While Mr. Remy could not be reached and Ms. Cotta declined to comment, Mr. DeAngelis said Thursday that in seeking answers about the contract, he and his fellow commissioners acted in the best interest of the town and authority. They were not willfully trying to violate state law in writing the letter, he said, but wrote it after feeling they had no other recourse.
“Everything I wrote was the gospel truth,” he said. “I don’t lie. The only thing we’re fighting is her contract. We tried to do everything for the right reason, and for the law. Why they’re fighting us I have no idea.”
Next: The union representing Warren Housing Authority employees professes “no confidence” in authority management.