Neil Albert
Former DCHA Board Chairman Neil Albert Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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D.C. Housing Authority board chairman Neil Albert, apparently, was in a hurry this morning. During a last-minute, emergency meeting in which the DCHA board of commissioners voted to give interim director Brenda Donald a two-year contract, Albert continually interrupted residents and advocates as they neared the end of their allotted times for testimony to inform them that they had seconds remaining.

Public housing residents had five minutes to testify; non-residents had three minutes.

Loose Lips understands why it’s important to follow the rules. Public meetings can become unwieldy and some testimony can get a little ranty. But for an agency that is consistently accused of excluding input from the residents it serves, Albert’s impatience is glaringly illustrative of that very point.

Denise Blackson, a resident of Sibley Plaza and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Single Member District 6E06, scolded the board for its rush to install Donald on a permanent basis. She wanted to know how Donald will improve communication with residents, and expressed frustration with a lack of answers from developers when Albert interjected that she had 30 seconds left.

“OK, thank you,” Blackson said. “You see, we’re always being rushed, and it’s so much frustration over the years that if we had these in-person meetings prior to finding out from someone else about these meetings, we can address and express some of these issues.”

Albert interrupted Debra Fraser while she asked that the director schedule regular meetings with residents.

“Only 20 percent of our households have access to internet,” Fraser said. “So a lot of our households don’t even know that this is happening. That’s a failure of engagement. Let’s work on that. And we’ll continue to agitate you to do that.”

Daniel Del Pielago, an organizer with Empower DC, said he found Donald to be professional and responsive, but wondered why the board was rushing to a vote. The board formed a subcommittee to lead a national search following Tyrone Garrett‘s departure in June. Donald agreed to come out of retirement to serve as the interim director while the board conducted a national search.”

Why couldn’t approval wait until its September meeting? he asked.

“The past director did little to close the trust gap that exists between public housing residents and DCHA,” Del Pielago said. “We need someone who puts mission and residents first before political or personal gain. Strong interpersonal skills are key, as many felt the former director to be abrasive and hard to connect with.

“Thank you, wrap it up,” Albert interjected, informing Del Pielago that he had 10 seconds left.

“I’m done,” Del Pielago said. “I really do hope we find the best candidate.”

“That was real rude,” said someone who LL could not identify.

Brenda Donald at a Nov. 6, 2018 election victory party for Mayor Muriel Bowser at Franklin Hall Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

In the two months since Donald took over, the board subcommittee tasked with finding a permanent executive director has drafted a job description and issued an RFP for a head hunting firm. The subcommittee met Aug. 10, just as it received bids from firms to perform a national search. On the same day, they were informed that Donald wanted the permanent position, and Albert intended to propose a resolution during an emergency meeting.

A public notice about the meeting went out on Wednesday, Aug. 11 and required those who wished to testify to sign up by Thursday at 9 a.m.—less than 24 hours later.

Commissioners Ann Hoffman and Bill Slover, both of whom sit on the search subcommittee, objected to the process and expressed their concern that Donald did not meet all of the job description’s criteria.

“To date, the interim executive director has not advised the entire board that she wishes to stay for two years,” Hoffman said of Donald. “She has not submitted an application for the position, has not submitted her resume to the board or to the search committee, has not submitted to the board her vision for the agency, her qualifications for the position, or plans for next 2 years.

“Nobody has performed the tasks that were to be performed by the search firm,” Hoffman continued. “Nobody has reached out to stakeholders for their views. The search committee has prepared a tentative position description and the interim executive director does not fit the description.”

Other commissioners disagreed. John Falcicchio, who sits on the board as an ex-officio member through his role as Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, praised Donald for her urgency and engagement. “If we have the right person with us now, why wouldn’t we give her the time to do the important work that’s ahead?” Falcicchio asked. He also serves as Bowser’s chief of staff.

Commissioner Dionne Bussey-Reeder echoed Falcicchio. She argued that following the original search procedure would be a disservice to public housing residents.

“I think we’re making it more political than it needs to be,” Bussey-Reeder said. “Continuing with a search, we’ll identify a good candidate, like we did with Tyrone [Garrett], and hand them a broken agency with poor infrastructure and deals on the table that are prohibiting families from moving forward. So we’re saying it’s better to follow policy and procedures that to move forward with the agenda of the people.”

Bussey-Reeder also incorrectly stated that she is a resident appointee. She was appointed by Bowser in 2020 to replace outgoing Commissioner NaKeisha Neal Jones.

Donald most recently served as Bower’s director of D.C.’s Children and Family Services Agency. She’ll now lead an agency responsible for the 7,500 people living in D.C.’s public housing that’s in need of billions worth of repairs as well as distributing housing vouchers.

Before the final vote, Hoffman lobbed an amendment that would have required Albert to return to the board with the contract he negotiates with Donald. The resolution gives Albert sole negotiating authority. Albert at first accepted the amendment, but it was then voted down. Commissioner Kenneth Council joined five mayoral appointees in defeating the amendment. Commissioners Slover and Aquarius Vann-Ghasri joined Hoffman in voting ‘yes.’

Donald spoke briefly on Friday, telling commissioners that she’s reached out to constituents and residents over the past eight weeks and has identified the agency’s biggest issues. She committed to monthly meetings with residents and promised to give the board a work plan with key milestones.

“We don’t need to lose the momentum,” Donald said. “I think what this agency needs is a period of sustained stability and the opportunity to really move through longstanding problems forward.”

The board approved her two-year contract 7-2 with Slover and Hoffman dissenting.