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Embattled St. Petersburg Housing Authority sues Rick Kriseman over potential board member removal

The lawsuit stems from ongoing controversy within the public agency.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority is suing Mayor Rick Kriseman in his official capacity as Mayor over his decision to remove three of the agency’s volunteer commissioners.

The lawsuit stems from ongoing controversy within the public agency surrounding complaints about its CEO, Tony Love, who lived in low-income housing rent-free and had issues with his combative demeanor.

Kriseman wrote a letter to three commissioners April 29 — Harry Harvey, Delphinia Davis and Ann Sherman White — informing them of his intent to remove them from their positions.

The housing authority filed its initial lawsuit three days before commissioners received the letter. They amended the complaint May 1 and filed a second request for emergency judgment May 2.

The lawsuit accuses Kriseman of illegally trying to terminate Love by removing three members and replacing them with others who will vote to terminate the CEO. The housing authority calls Kriseman’s claim that the three commissioners neglected their duties “pretextual and false” and is asking the court to block Kriseman from removing the board members.

The board members have not yet been removed. City Council is expected to vote on their removal May 16.

“Under state statutes, the Mayor does not have the authority to remove Board members because Board members have not or will not terminate the employment of the CEO,” the lawsuit claims. It references the agency’s bylaws in which the hiring and firing authority for the agency’s CEO is placed upon the agency’s board.

However, the Kriseman administration, in its letter to the three commissioners, claims Kriseman has authority to remove the members under Florida State Statute which allows for removal in cases of “inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” It requires at least 10-days notice of such intent and an opportunity to respond in person or in writing, which the Kriseman administration provided.

Kriseman’s action came after a Tampa Bay Times investigation discovered the housing authority board had approved a 7 percent pay raise for Love despite complaints about his management style. Love reportedly admitted he screamed at staff and on one occasion directed them to perform work for his fraternity. The board bumped Love’s pay from $140,000 a year to $150,000.

The board approved Love’s pay raise after it ordered the CEO to undergo management training and he completed that process.

Kriseman’s administration subsequently found board members, particularly the three he seeks to remove, did not disclose the issues. The investigation levied a total of six charges against the commissioners including failures to follow Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

The board also allowed Love to live in low-income housing despite his high salary, a move which was later cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that said the board allowed unauthorized use of Authority-owned property, according to the Times.

Kriseman also accuses Sherman White of repeated absences.

However, affidavits filed by all three commissioners facing losing their positions claim Kriseman is playing politics with the housing authority.

According to documents, Love is aggressively pursuing purchasing property in Jordan Park for additional low-income housing. The commissioners say Kriseman is trying to overthrow Love so his administration can use the property to gentrify the neighborhood.

“I believe that their wish is to utilize Jordan Park to provide housing for individuals who have a substantially greater income than the individuals whom the SPHA is supposed to serve and that they are politically motivated to undermine the SPHA’s actions in Jordan Park,” Harvey wrote.

Both Davis and Sherman White agreed. They also contend the board’s decision to increase Love’s compensation came after he successfully completed management training and showed marked improvement.

“We did not ignore the staff feedback about Mr. Love’s management style, which is shown by the fact that we hired an expert and required Mr. Love to meet the training goals. We also did not take irresponsible action of terminating Mr. Love simply because some of the staff who had worked with the previous CEO were not comfortable with his management style,” Davis wrote.

The Housing Authority’s lawsuit claims its requested injunction is necessary to protect its ongoing operations.

“The public interest is served by the granting of this temporary injunction because it is in the public interest to separate the day-to-day operations and oversight of a housing authority from the political whims of an overzealous city administration that uses commissioner removal as a pretext for interfering with the SPHA Board as it exercises its statutorily prescribed powers and duties on behalf of the Citizens of St. Petersburg,” the lawsuit reads.

“The SPHA cannot function if it cannot exercise its statutorily prescribed duties and powers without fear of pretextual, arbitrary and capricious reprisal from the Mayor.”

The Housing Authority did not immediately respond to request for comment on this matter. Kriseman’s administration declined to comment because they do not comment on pending litigation.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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