Mayor Scott Johnson has been cautious to a fault in dealing with the mess at the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority. Tonight, at a City Council meeting, he has a chance to take a needed first step by not reappointing board chairman Dennis Brunelle, whose term has expired.
Johnson has promised to announce his decision at the meeting, which was officially posted and will be open to the public. That’s in stark contrast to the secret meeting the Housing Authority held last week, reported by The Saratogian.
Brunelle’s arrogance is on display in this quote from the story: “Our position was that we really didn’t need to post it. If we felt it was something the public needed to know, we would have posted it.”
Brunelle’s justifications for secrecy were also less than convincing: “We called it a gathering,” or a chance to “brainstorm,” and it wasn’t a “substantial meeting,” he said. But the state Open Meetings Law makes no exceptions based on how the meeting is characterized or whether decisions are made; it applies any time a majority gathers to conduct board business.
It appears that arrogance and secrecy have become routine at the Housing Authority. The board allowed Brunelle and Executive Director Ed Spychalski to run things, and didn’t ask a lot of questions. Nor, for 12 years, did the Housing Authority go to the City Council for approval of employee salaries, as required by law. If it had, there’s no way the council would have approved $30,000 raises, which brought Spychalski’s salary from $74,000 in 2006 to $152,000 this year.
It is that salary and last winter’s bedbug infestation that have made headlines. But issues of nepotism, conflict of interest and improper use of public vehicles have also been raised.
Under law the Housing Authority is separate from city government; other than approving salaries, the City Council has no role or control. But Johnson should be making more of the failure to go to the council for salary approval. It may be grounds for voiding Spychalski’s golden contract, which still has four years to run unless he’s bought out, and installing a new board.
Johnson has gotten the state comptroller to start an audit of the authority, but that can take years to complete and release. More urgency is needed. He should be making the case with other agencies that could require action, such as the state attorney general’s office, New York State Homes and Community Renewal, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which, while all this was going on, somehow saw fit to give the Housing Authority top ratings.