For some, Steve Barton’s an idealist who puts his principles into practice, advocating housing policies—rent control, subsidized housing, co-operative housing—aimed at keeping diverse populations in Berkeley.
Others say Barton, pressured to resign Tuesday as Berkeley’s housing director, is an ideologue, practicing a political agenda rather than performing as a neutral bureaucrat.
And for City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, perhaps the former housing director’s harshest critic, Barton’s chief failure has been a refusal over the years to adhere to her legal advice.
In a memo to the mayor and council released Wednesday Albuquerque not only chronicles details of alleged lapses of the former housing director, she criticizes City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna for failing to follow her counsel.
“Had they taken the legal advice, it might have been possible to avoid the current crisis,” Albuquerque writes.
Barton supporters, however, say that the tone and content of the attorney’s memo was inappropriate as it made public specific personnel issues and that Barton is taking the fall for accumulated housing authority problems.
“Barton is a sacrificial lamb for the years of [City Council] neglect of the Housing Authority,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet on Wednesday. The council plus two tenants currently serves as the board that oversees the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA). A new board is to be put in place July 1.
Barton reacted Thursday to the Albuquerque memo.
“I have a very different perspective on what was done. I welcome an impartial investigation,” he told the Daily Planet in a brief phone interview, adding, “I am disappointed that the city has put out a one-sided attack piece without engaging me in a proper process.”
Blame spread around
On Thursday, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he hesitated to respond to questions about the city attorney’s memo, saying, “Some of what’s in the city attorney’s memo may be illegal, the way it’s said.”
Worthington was referring to the part of Albuquerque’s memo that criticized Barton for going against her counsel when he hired a particular individual at the housing authority.
Kamlarz, who is the executive director of the BHA, told the Daily Planet that he faults himself as well as others.
“I’m accountable, he’s accountable,” Kamlarz said referring to Barton’s alleged failure to complete certain tasks. One of these detailed in the Albuquerque memo was Barton’s lapse in making sure low income housing manager Affordable Housing Associates had installed a telephone line for the deaf in its offices.
“I have to rely on the department heads to do the work,” Kamlarz said.
On Thursday Kamlarz declined to comment on Albuquerque’s Wednesday memo.
Worthington told the Planet he faults the council for spending so little time overseeing the housing authority.
A quick look back at BHA agendas since 2003 shows the board met between seven and 12 times each year, spending from 30 minutes to an hour per meeting. This was an improvement over earlier years when the board would schedule BHA meetings simultaneously with the council meetings and spend just a few minutes rushing through business.
“The City Councilmembers as the Housing Authority Board did not pay the attention needed. This is not the way to manage a multi-million dollar agency,” Worthington said, noting that he had tried to get the BHA and council meetings scheduled on separate days, but the council majority refused.
Worthington also faulted the council for having never evaluated Kamlarz, who is ultimately responsible.
Worthington said Barton’s departure is a loss for the city. “Barton has been a phenomenal resource in getting funding for affordable housing,” he said.
City Councilmember Max Anderson told the Planet Wednesday that he was sorry to see Barton leave his post: “He’s a strong advocate for affordable housing. The housing authority has been a continuing frustration for all of us.”
Anderson added that he thinks it is unfair for the city attorney, in her May 22 memo to the council, to have painted all the workers “with a broad brush.”
He was referring to a report by Albuquerque that said authority staff inaccurately determined eligibility, allowed ineligible family member to “inherit” Section 8 units, failed to complete income certifications and continued to pay rent on at least 15 units in which the tenants are deceased. As a consequence, all BHA staff except the director are losing their jobs at the BHA; they will be reassigned to vacant positions within the city.
(Albuquerque has denied the Daily Planet’s Public Records Act request for the names of landlords alleged to rent to “dead” tenants, contending that she cannot turn over the material while an investigation is going on. Attorneys at the Community Law Center have told the Daily Planet that the issue of “dead” tenants is complex, since, in some cases, the deceased tenants’ families continue to live in the Section 8 apartment.)
Jesse Arreguin, a member of both the Rent Stabilization Board and Housing Advisory Commission told the Daily Planet Wednesday that he was “incensed” that Barton was made to resign.
“Steve Barton has a fundamental belief in providing housing for all,” he said. “He was an advocate for rent control and did an incredible job in his position. He should not have been forced to resign just to give the appearance that change was happening.”
Some welcome departure
Barton’s detractors welcome the departure of the man they say was responsible for the 2002 designation by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) as “troubled.” Barton was named permanent housing director in 2001.
“The buck has got to stop somewhere,” said Berkeley resident David M. Wilson, telling the Planet that Barton’s advice to the council is generally based on ideology rather than objectivity.
In a May 25 letter to the Planet Wilson faults Barton as “the author of the Condominium Conversion Ordinance which [Barton] said would bring the city $4 million a year in added [low income housing] funds. Now nearly two years later, not a single dollar has come in. He continues to resist any reevaluation of Berkeley’s rent control program, which costs $3 million per year, but which no longer helps those most in need of help.”
Commenting on Albuquerque’s Wednesday memo, which he characterized as “intense,” Councilmember Darryl Moore said the city attorney was correct in “pointing the fingers at management.”
In her first memo, she faulted line staff only. “It seemed very incomplete,” he said, adding, “I believe management dropped the ball. I’m glad she did the second memo. It’s unfortunate for Mr. Barton—he let some things fall through the cracks.”
Moore added that he thinks the city manager should be evaluated yearly.
Kamlarz asked Barton to resign June 5.
This came on the heels of Albuqerque’s May 22 report in which she cites a “defensive and combative attitude by Housing Department management toward early warnings about the severity and widespread scope of [BHA] problems.”
In the Wednesday morning phone interview, Kamlarz took responsibility for Barton’s departure. “It was my decision, a tough decision,” he said.
“The unions are saying management is not being held accountable,” Kamlarz said, adding that he shared responsibility for the housing authority situation.
“I should be held accountable,” he said.
Albuquerque’s six-page June 6 memo was even more pointed, detailing multiple instances in which Barton—and also Kamlarz and Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna—refused her legal advice.
“In brief, at many successive junctures, city management at every level failed to follow legal advice on how to identify and rectify the full scope of the serious and growing operational problems at the BHA,” the memo says.
Specifically, Albuquerque alleged Barton failed to comply with an agreement signed with HUD in 2005 with respect to accessibility for the disabled, including failure to survey contractors to see if they complied with the Americans with Disability Act requirements and the lack of installation of a TDD line (telephone communication for the deaf) at Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) offices. AHA manages the city’s 75 public housing units and was criticized by Albuquerque in her May 22 report for not making needed repairs of the units.
At the time, AHA blamed a convoluted city process for slow repairs.
Among her complaints against Barton, Albuquerque, who declined comment through her staff, alleged that he failed in 2004, to impose performance standards for maintenance on AHA and/or “failed to hold it to the standards imposed.”
Kamlarz and Caronna are not spared the attorney’s venom. The memo accuses them of deciding to appoint a particular city employee as BHA acting director against her advice.
“I immediately and strongly objected to this course of action because of the serious resistance this employee had previously exhibited to implementing legal advice, including a very serious matter involving significant potential city liability,” she wrote.
Albuquerque goes on write that Kamlarz “appointed the employee in the face of my advice….”
Albuquerque says Barton continued to ignore her counsel: “Against my advice, the city manager and deputy city manager continued to defer to Mr. Barton’s decisions.”
One source, who asked for anonymity, praised Barton for being “the only staff person who will go toe to toe with Manuela Albuquerque.”
Memos from Albequerque and Kalmarz concerning Barton’s resigntion can be found on the Planet’s website, www.berkeleydailyplanet.com