In the midst of its search for a new executive director, the Little Rock housing authority was left leaderless Friday after its top executive resigned.
The day began with interviews in private meetings that experts say violated public-meeting laws and ended with Marshall Nash's resignation. The Metropolitan Housing Alliance is the largest provider of rental subsidies in Little Rock, and has an overall budget of more than $25 million for 2019.
Nash, who has served as interim director for the board since November, resigned effective immediately Friday and board members did not select a replacement. Three board members -- Leta Anthony, Kenyon Lowe and Lee Lindsey -- voted to accept the resignation Friday afternoon.
Nash was hired in 2014 as the director of administrative and legal services with a $79,997 starting salary. He took the interim position after former executive director Rodney Forte resigned in November.
Shortly after Nash took over, he dismissed Dana Arnette, deputy executive director and the chief operating officer for the housing authority, in December.
He was not available for comment by press time.
Leta Anthony, who leads the board, declined to comment on why Nash resigned or provide the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with his resignation letter, citing an ongoing administrative process.
Nash's resignation came on the same day as board members interviewed Nadine Jarmon for the executive director position. Jarmon was the second of three candidates to interview for the spot.
She's the executive director at the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority in Florida and led the agency through two transitions of properties from public housing to Section 8 through the Rental Assistance Demonstration program.
The program allows public agencies to partner with private companies to revitalize aging housing stock, and the Little Rock agency is going through the process with several properties.
Section 8 gives residents vouchers for a rental subsidy, and they can find their own apartments. The housing authority is the landlord for tenants in public housing, although in locations that undergo the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, only a certain percentage of residents will be able to move, because most of the vouchers must stay at the refurbished location.
Jarmon also has worked as a contracting consultant, board adviser and monitor for the Gary Housing Authority in Indiana, the executive director of the Road Home Corp. dba Louisiana Land Trust, and the executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
She received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Central Arkansas, a master's in business administration from the University of Houston, and a master's in public administration and a doctorate in urban and public affairs from the University of Texas.
Anthony said the interviews were "absolutely fantastic."
Jarmon wasn't available for comment. The other two candidates are Kimberly Adams of Houston and R.M. Jackson of Spartanburg, S.C. Jackson is scheduled to interview Monday.
Interviews with Jarmon began at 10 a.m., according to a public notice of the meeting sent Thursday.
When the Democrat-Gazette arrived at the agency just before 10 a.m. and asked to go to the meeting room, the paper was told the meeting hadn't started yet. Commissioner Lee Lindsey arrived a few minutes later and when he went into the elevator, the paper asked whether the meeting was beginning. He said:
"It's just me."
But a receptionist said at least one more commissioner was upstairs. When the newspaper said that constituted a public meeting and asked to go up, the receptionist said someone would come down to talk about the meeting.
The housing authority elevator requires a code to get to certain floors.
No one arrived for about an hour, when commissioner Kenyon Lowe arrived. When the newspaper asked to go up with him, he said no.
When pressed, he replied:
"It's still a part of the interview process. You don't get that. It's just exclusive to commissioners."
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act defines a public meeting as any gathering of a governing body that is discussing public business. A quorum is not required.
"I don't understand what legal authority that the housing authority is using to deny the public access to the meeting," said John Tull, a counsel for the Arkansas Press Association, in a phone interview.
The law allows private meetings for discussion of personnel matters, or public water system or utility system security.
But the body must announce the purpose of the executive session publicly at the beginning of the meeting, said Robert Steinbuch, who teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's W.H. Bowen School of Law. Steinbuch also co-authored the sixth edition of The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
"They violated the open meetings act, and this is quite clearly starting to look like a pattern," Steinbuch said. "And remember, there are criminal penalties as well as civil remedies."
Negligently violating the Freedom of Information Act is a Class C misdemeanor. The Little Rock housing authority has a history of testing public-records laws, notably in 2014 when Forte was charged with a misdemeanor and arrested for failure to comply with the act.
He and Nash attempted to charge the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette more than $16,000 to fulfill a public-records request.
Forte was acquitted by a jury.
Over the past few months, the board has met often in executive session, usually citing personnel matters. Twice on Saturdays, they have met for hours in private, and took no public action.
On Tuesday, the board met for seven hours, claiming that it wasn't a meeting and refused to allow the Democrat-Gazette in the room or on the same floor. They then met in public for just under 40 seconds, and said the board had decided to continue interviewing candidates.
The board also did not send out a public notice as normal for Tuesday's meeting, instead sending an email to five general news accounts, ignoring individual newspaper reporters, editors and at least two news outlets who have asked to be notified.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said after Tuesday's meeting, he informed Anthony that notice should be sent to everyone who asked and told the newspaper that he was "closely monitoring," the situation at the agency.
He added that he has not been a part of the process of selecting an executive director.
"I am not involved in the process because it's not within the governing authority of the city of Little Rock," Scott said.
In Little Rock, the housing commissioners select new members, but the city board and mayor confirm appointments. Scott said that cases of misconduct "could call for removal" of board members, but he and the city attorney were examining what power the city and mayor have over the agency.
The housing authority is federally funded, but locally controlled. Scott said that meant he has no legal control over the board. He added that he didn't want to get involved in a "he said, she said."
"Believe me, if I could do more, I would be doing more because I want the press to have all its information," he said.
During his campaign, Scott often referred to efforts to improve transparency in the government.
A Section on 04/13/2019
Print Headline: Interim chief at Little Rock housing authority abruptly resigns