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With state receivership over, Chelsea Housing Authority is ready for new chapter

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / March 15, 2012
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Three months after its executive director and board of commissioners resigned amid a public uproar over the director’s pay, the Chelsea Housing Authority is preparing to start a new chapter.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court, responding to a petition from Attorney General Martha Coakley, ended the state receivership that had overseen the authority since the resignation of its five commissioners in November. The termination was made retroactive to last Friday.

With that ruling, the five new appointees to the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners are poised to begin their roles.

Governor Deval Patrick named Juan R. Vega to the gubernatorial seat on the board last Friday. He joins Donald Kingsbury, Barbara Salisbury, Thomas Standish, and Bert Taverna, who were appointed by the City Council in January and February on City Manager Jay Ash’s recommendation.

“We’re looking forward to the beginning of a new chapter at the Chelsea Housing Authority. The new board, along with Governor Patrick’s reforms to increase oversight, will bring a new sense of accountability and integrity to Chelsea public housing,’’ Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary for Housing and Community Development, said in a prepared statement.

The Housing Authority, which administers 1,400 state and federally subsidized family and senior housing units and federal housing certificates, became the focus of attention after the Globe reported on Oct. 30 that its director, Michael E. McLaughlin, was earning $360,000 a year.

After the size of the pay drew sharp public criticism, Patrick demanded and received the resignations of McLaughlin and the board’s five members. The governor also temporarily froze state funding to the authority because McLaughlin had allegedly underreported his pay to the state.

At the request of city officials, Patrick petitioned the court to appoint an outside receiver to temporarily assume the duties of the board. Judy Weber was named receiver on Nov. 21.

Praising Weber, Ash said by e-mail, “I am confident that her good work and the work of many others have now placed the [housing authority] in a position to still maintain a high standard going forward. Tough questions have been asked, seemingly every policy reviewed, systems and best practices offered up, and new operating and oversight expectations instilled in the organization.’’

Ash said a “very strong board has been assembled through a rigorous local process, and that board is fully capable of carrying out the next series of actions needed to strengthen even further the [housing authority’s] mission and performance.’’

He added that the new executive director, Al Ewing, and his team “have earned my confidence, to date, and I look forward to working with Al and all those who want to restore the public’s trust in the CHA to do that and more.’’

Prior to their own resignations, the board last Nov. 4 named Ewing to serve as interim director and then as permanent director as of Jan. 1. That appointment was later ratified by the receiver, according to Ewing.

Ewing said the new appointees, tentatively set to hold their first commissioners’ meeting March 29, are receiving training from the city and the state to familiarize them with their new roles.

A former city councilor, Vega is president and chief executive of Centro Latino, a Chelsea-based nonprofit serving Latinos and immigrants in Eastern Massachusetts.

“Juan’s commitment to active citizenship is a tremendous asset to his community, to the Commonwealth, and to the challenges we face,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “We appreciate his willingness to serve in this capacity.’’

Vega said he was “honored and humbled’’ by his appointment. “I look forward to working with the other commissioners on the important issues of affordable housing and public housing in the city of Chelsea.’’

“It’s a massive responsibility that all five of us have to restore the public trust’’ in the authority, he said.

Salisbury and Standish will fill the seats that by statute are for members of the general public.

Standish is a former member of the Connecticut Public Utilities Commission who has been an educator, economic consultant, and business owner, according to Ash. Salisbury is a former Massachusetts state budget director and administrative dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is chief executive officer of MAB Community Services, formerly the Massachusetts Association for the Blind.

Kingsbury, who fills the housing tenant seat, is a former town selectman and county budget committee member in Maine, and is president of the Chelsea Veterans Council.

Taverna, who fills the labor seat, is vice president of the local United Steelworkers union that represents the city’s middle-management employees. A former general contractor, he serves as the city’s capital projects manager.

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