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Former Housing Director Calls For Investigation Into Charges

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 14, 2007

Former Berkeley Housing Director Steve Barton, pressured to resign after what some say was a cursory investigation by the city attorney into problems at the Berkeley Housing Authority, was back before the City Council on Tuesday to accept a proclamation honoring him as a “stalwart and creative leader in achieving the city of Berkeley’s affordable housing mission.” 

While Barton said he was appreciative of the praise, he made clear in the statement he read thanking the council for the proclamation that he believes the city is obliged to thoroughly investigate the allegations made against him and others. 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, absent on medical leave until Oct. 1, wrote two scathing memos, one May 22 and the other June 6, blaming Barton and a host of other city employees for the problems at BHA.  

In her June 6 memo, Albuquerque talked about “a pervasive abdication of duty on the part of line BHA employees,” and said, “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.” 

Barton’s statement was received with a standing ovation by the audience. He thanked the council, and spoke of the activism of his younger years participating in movements for racial equality, ending the war in Vietnam, supporting gay liberation, and participating in actions to protect the homes of low-income people.  

Barton praised the city for its ability to maintain a government “whose core values are democracy, social justice, a sustainable environment and an economy that values creativity over profit.” 

Nevertheless, the criticisms he raised were pointed. 

“Unfortunately, appreciative as I am of the honor you do me this evening, I can’t pass over the city’s recent violation of its principles of decency and respect to all people including its employees,” he said, pointing to the city attorney’s “statements regarding myself and many other city employees who worked with or at the Berkeley Housing Authority.  

“These statements were made without serious investigation, without any effort to hear from those who were criticized, and without reviewing all of the available information. I believe that you have an obligation to ensure that a careful and balanced third party review is carried out and made public.” 

Barton is not alone calling for an investigation. In a June 14 memo to the City Council, the Housing Advisory Commission called for an independent investigation and on June 19, the Rent Stabilization Board wrote: 

“On June 6, the city attorney issued a letter to council and the press blaming a number of city employees, including Dr. Barton for management problems with the Housing Authority and Housing Department. Because Dr. Barton strongly disputes the allegations raised … and fears if unchallenged, his professional reputation will be irreparably harmed, we ask that the city manager and City Council immediately initiate an independent and thorough investigation into the accuracy of the allegations….  

“We also ask that this investigation address … the appropriateness of the city attorney making these allegations in a public forum. None of the individuals named have had a chance to respond, and the validity of the allegations are in serious question.” 

Reached by phone Thursday, City Manager Phil Kamlarz said his response has not changed since the boards originally issued their letters: he will initiate an investigation after the HUD investigator completes his investigation. Kamlarz could not say when that would happen.  

“I haven’t talked to them for a month and a half,” he said. (The Housing Authority separated itself from the city in July.) The Daily Planet asked Kamlarz if his office would encourage HUD to finish its work quickly and Kamlarz responded: “They’re calling the shots. They’re the feds.” 

Carole Norris, chair of the Berkeley Housing Authority board, spoke of her “great regard” for Barton in a phone interview with the Planet on Thursday. She said she is concerned that the charges have not been thoroughly investigated and that Barton’s demand for an independent investigation is “a reasonable expectation.”  

While she said that shoring up the troubled agency is her first priority, she plans to place the question of an investigation before the board in October.