Friday, April 12, 2024

Cambridge Housing Authority tenants will be waking up today to a surprise.

They left Monday’s meeting of the City Council satisfied, with two appointments of authority commissioners tabled.

But the appointments went through, with councillors Majorie Decker and Larry Ward — in very nearly his final act in office — changing their votes. What had been a 6-3 vote to set aside the decision for a week became a 5-4 vote to let it go forward, and ultimately Craig Kelley was the only councillor against making the appointments Monday.

Housing Authority residents, about 10 of who attended the meeting and some of who spoke during public comment, said they were not objecting to the proposed appointments so much as how they were made.

“It always happens like this, they always present a choice at the last minute,” said Kathy Watkins, an authority tenant, explaining that after a two-year commissioner vacancy, Anthony Pini was introduced as the choice of City Manager Robert W. Healy just days before the council vote. Gerald Clarke, a much-liked 36-year member of the commission, was also to be reappointed.

The five-member board of commissioners governs the authority, with four members appointed by the city manager; the director of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development appoints the fifth, according to the authority’s Web site. The board appoints an executive director to oversee the daily operation of the housing authority and ensure board policies are enacted.

Having two tenant representatives on the commission is a custom “so ancient even Healy wasn’t city manager yet” when it began, speaker Bill Cunningham said to laughter. “Nobody objects to these candidates. They’ve been on the board quite a long time now, and I’m sure they’ll be competent. But we have a problem with how the seats are filled.”

At first, the majority of the nine councillors acknowledged the conflict and agreed to put the matter on hold until the Jan. 4 meeting — the first of the next council, with Leland Cheung replacing Ward. Wanting to go ahead with the vote were David Maher, Tim Toomey and Henrietta Davis.

Later Ward checked some notes and realized his vote to table was wrong — he had believed he was voting on something else, he explained after the meeting.

Decker, though, said her vote changed with “a moment of clarity” that came when she realized that taking up the issue next week, “I wasn’t going to change my vote, so what was I doing? … Really, what was the purpose of putting my vote off?”

Also, from her discussions with tenants she determined the goal wasn’t for the appointment to be rejected, but for communication between Healy, the authority, the council and the tenants to be improved, she said. The additional issue is the tenants’ poor relationship with the current tenant representative, which “needs to be worked on.”

“My intent was not to deliberately confuse anyone — it was a moment of clarity,” she said after the meeting. “And I told tenants I supported the appointments,” which were legal, despite the end of an enduring tradition of having a second tenant representative.

She said she planned to send an e-mail to the tenants today to explain her decision.

The relationship between the tenants and their representative on the commission is indeed strained, with Sherry Tucker saying of her, “I haven’t felt that represented by Jackie Adams. I didn’t feel our representative was communicating with us”; Watkins went further, saying Adams “is not responsible to tenants and told me herself she doesn’t talk to tenants and doesn’t see that as her role.”

Neither Clarke nor Pini were present Monday, but authority chairman James G. Stockard Jr. was, and tenants’ assessment of Adams was just one aspect of the evening with which he disagreed. “I find Jackie to be a very good representative of the residents. I think she’s served them very well,” Stockard said. He was also upset people were left with the impression the authority had communicated poorly with tenants, when the timing of the appointments was decided by Healy’s office

But he was most upset Clarke, a lawyer leading a number of key authority efforts, would be kept from the authority during a vital time — namely the federalization of housing units that are state property. The state provides only 35 percent of what public housing formulas say the city should get, Stockard said, so it’s good to shift responsibility to the federal government.

“If we don’t do it now, it’ll be many years until we can do it again,” Stockard said.

When the vote to appoint Clarke and Pini went through, the chairman was more relieved to see it done than sorry to see the loss of a second tenant representative or the way in which tenants were informed of the city manager’s choices.

“Residents can feel the way they want about that. Process is valuable, but substance is what I care about most,” he said. “You appoint because of ability and the willingness to work hard, not because of labels.”

Residents, however, expressed dismay at losing a potential champion when they feel alienated from their sole representative, as well as helpless in the face of official indifference. One speaker stressed that they were approaching the council because they felt the authority wasn’t approachable.

“We represent 5,000 households in Cambridge, and we need a voice,” Watkins said.