Simply Put – The HHA Refuses To Follow The Law
The Huntington Housing Authority has a long history of poor public perception. The only thing that has changed over the recent years is that the new leadership is well connected to our local politicians. There are several laws that we know they are not complying with. Compliance with other laws can’t be determined at this time because the necessary documents are not readily available.
About a decade ago, after a scandal in the HHA, Town Law was passed to ensure that the public would have access to information and the HHA would not be permitted to operate in secrecy. As far as we can tell, under the leadership of William Spencer and Robert Fonti this law has not been complied with. Steve Israel and Frank Petrone were instrumental in seeing that these public disclosure laws were passed and yet, after they saw to it that the old guard of the HHA was gone, they never followed up to see that the laws were enforced. It is a well known fact that Robert Fonti and William Spencer have a close working relationship with most of the current local elected officials. You may recall that on the Town Hall tapes, Robert Fonti is in the room. They were also concerned with protecting William Spencer during the election campaign.
The Town law in question is Chapter 40 of the Town Code. This code was adopted in 1999 and it states:
It is the intent of the Huntington Town Board to require regular and systematic disclosure and dissemination of financial and operational information of the Huntington Housing Authority to ensure that the Town Board and the people of the Town of Huntington are fully informed as to the financial activities, operations and integrity of the Huntington Housing Authority.
Specific requirements of the law are:
A. Provide certified copies of the minutes of all of its meetings, including a Treasurer’s report to the Town Clerk, Town Supervisor, Town Board and the Town Attorney within thirty (30) days of the approval or acceptance of said minutes and reports.
B. Submit quarterly financial reports to the Town Clerk, Town Supervisor, Town Board and the Town Attorney. Such financial reports shall include itemization of all disbursements and receipts.
C. Publish an annual public report, including statements of goals for the following year, on or before December 31.
D. File meeting agendas with the Town Clerk at least one (1) week prior to any meeting of the Authority.
E. Provide copies of all audits from whatever the source to the Town Clerk, Town Supervisor, Town Board and the Town Attorney within thirty (30) days of their receipt by the Authority.
F. Require that no Commissioner may be denied information and/or documents related in any matter to the Huntington Housing Authority.
G. Require the Town Comptroller to conduct an audit on an annual basis.
At first we couldn’t determine if the law was being complied with. When we asked direct questions we were not given straight answers. The typical “everyone is misinformed”, “we are trying to work with the public”, were the standard stock answer to our questions. As part of the requirement of the law, the HHA is supposed to supply specific documents to the Town Clerk. From experience, we have learned that when wanting to obtain information about the Town of Huntington the path of least resistance, or should I say no resistance is the Town Clerk’s office. We filed a FOIL request with the Town Clerk and learned that there were no documents received after 2001.
At a recent HHA public meeting, Paul Levitt, the Attorney for the HHA, stated that they have not complied with the Town Code. He stated that the code was put into place at a time when there was a conflict between various commissioners and that this code was put into place to assist these commissioners in obtaining information. He explained that there is no longer a need to follow the law because all the commisssioners get along and share information. He explained that the law is not enforceable because you can’t have one separate political body demanding legislation to provide the records of another separate and distinct political body.
The comments from the HHA Attorney seem to contradict statements made during the time the laws were being passed. “I believe that under Mr. McKay the Housing Authority operated its own private fiefdom, Town board member Steve Israel said. The fact that there is no requirement that the Housing Authority give information to the Town Board, in my view, enabled these allegations to flourish.” (Newsday, May 13, 1999: A35) Steve Israel was a Town Councilman at the time he made these statements.
“It is necessary to immediately restore public confidence in the Housing Authority and to assure the proper delivery of services to the clients of the Housing Authority.” Said Supervisor Frank Petrone. He then called a special meeting for the purpose of passing 3 important resolutions. (The Observer, April 1999: 9).
“These requirements go beyond the bare minimum and intensify the Authorities accountablility to the taxpayers of Huntington. Given its troubled history it should do no less”, said Steve israel. (Long Islander, October 21, 1999, New Rules Eyed For Housing Authority).
“All the records are available through FOIL anyway, but now that the law has been passed, the Town may additionally seek injunctive relief for non-compliance”, said Town Attorney James Matthews (Long Islander, October 21, 1999, New Rules For Housing Authority).
The Housing Authority is created by the state of NY but the Town Council has power to appoint the commission that oversees it.
According to a Long Islander Article dated October 21, 1999, Steve Israel called for the resolutions to insure disclosure of financial and operational practices of the HHA. He referred to it as the Huntington Housing Authority Accountability Act and described it as a measure that would keep the HHA from continuing down the path of secrecy and obstruction. He insisted that these laws go beyond the bare minimum and intensify the Authorities accountability to the tax payer.
In a nutshell, the Huntington Housing Authority has elected to disobey the law because they feel it is an unjust law and unnecessary under the current circumstances. Imagine if the rest of us exercised that “right”? Bear in mind that the Huntington Housing Authority is directly responsible for millions of dollars of public money. They also oversee a Section 8 program where segregation is alive and slumlords thrive. It is ironic that we have brought in ShotSpotter to encourage people to follow the law, but our own Government agencies don’t feel they need to be accountable. The opinion of an attorney does not make a law invalid. Only a Judges opinion matters. So comply with the law or get the law removed.
“The town attorney may find that they have the ability to defy us,” Steve Israel said. “Then we’ll know who’s on the side of secrecy. And the commissioners who are on the side of secrecy cannot count on my vote for reappointment.” Said then Councilman Steve Israel (Newsday, Town Attempts To Rein in Housing Agency, Oct 21 1999: 32).