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Embattled Medford Housing Authority vows change

Posted by Matt Byrne  April 19, 2012 05:00 PM

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With a mix of shock, anger, and consternation, officials of the embattled Medford Housing Authority Wednesday signaled their plans to clean up the agency after a federal audit called into question how it awarded and oversaw millions in contracts and housing vouchers.

In a 21-point outline, the agency said it plans to hire a procurement officer and a bevy of consultants to bring the agency's practices up to federal standards, among other changes in procedure. A final version of the remediation plan must be submitted to the department of Housing and Urban Development's Boston office by April 30.

The audit questions how the agency selected contractors for more than $1.3 million worth of work and services performed at authority-run property, and calls into question whether the authority paid fair rates for $7.8 million in housing assistance to private landlords.

Though scrutiny will likely continue for the agency, some residents who attended spoke in favor of its executive director, Robert Covelle, who took over in June 2009, and has generally received more favorable reviews than his predecessor, John Greco.

The questions follow criticism by the Medford City Council Tuesday, when Councilor Robert A. Penta assailed Covelle and the commissioners during a council meeting broadcast on local access television.

Penta called for Covelle's ouster and cast blame on the commissioners for failing to rectify the problems before they were caught by auditors.

Although the councilors and the city's mayor, Michael J. McGlynn, have no direct oversight or involvement in the authority, Penta still questioned the director's hiring, saying the decision was politically motivated.

At the housing meeting, the outspoken councilor continued to pepper the commissioners and Covelle with questions, at times verbally sparring with Eugene J. McGillicuddy, a commissioner and treasurer.

"If you're going to implement these programs now, what the heck was going on before?" Penta said.

"Nothing is ever perfect, and we're trying to correct everything now," McGillicuddy responded.

Some commissioners attempted to distance themselves from the controversy, saying the role of the commission is to set policy, and it should therefore not be held accountable for flawed procedures that it does not oversee.

One member, Sylviajean Beaumeister, said the body acted immediately when it was notified of the audit, but was hampered by its lack of leverage, and an apparent refusal by Covelle to answer her questions.

"When I ask questions, I expect answers, and when I didn't get answers, I went to [the Housing Authority] attorney," Beaumeister said. "But to think we had control over any of this is truly, truly not fair."

Other were saddened and disheartened by the findings, and the shadow they have cast on the city's name.

"We're as upset as you and the people of Medford," said Commissioner Michael A. Luongo, addressing the dozens in the crowd. "This is very embarrassing."

Covelle, the agency's executive director, defended its record.

"Employees of the Medford Housing Authority and the Board of Commissioners is taking it very seriously," Covelle said.

But as the meeting progressed, tension between Covelle and Luongo finally erupted.

"I've been wanting to discuss this audit for weeks, and there was always an obstacle. This should have been discussed a while back. $1,366,000 in no-bid contracts -- unheard of. If you ask someone, they blame someone else," Luongo said. "Someone take the blame."

Luongo said when he asked Covelle about the audit, he was rebuffed.

"How many times did I ask you about it? And you say 'We did nothing wrong, we did nothing wrong.'"

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