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Sparks fly at Cook housing authority meeting

David Colburn
Posted 2/18/20

COOK – Allegations of disrespectful treatment and harassment, from Cook Housing and Redevelopment Authority residents about management, created a contentious atmosphere during a Feb. 12 board …

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Sparks fly at Cook housing authority meeting

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COOK – Allegations of disrespectful treatment and harassment, from Cook Housing and Redevelopment Authority residents about management, created a contentious atmosphere during a Feb. 12 board meeting.
Executive director Reed Erickson was the primary target of complaints lodged by five residents of the Pioneer building, one of two apartment buildings operated by CHRA.
“Can we talk here and say what we have to say without retaliation?” resident John Bergman asked at the outset of an open comment period.
“Absolutely, it’s an open comment period,” Erickson said.
Although board rules specify individuals are limited to three minutes for comment, Bergman spent the next 15 minutes detailing several examples of interactions with Erickson in which he felt intimidated.
One instance occurred when Bergman was playing cards with other residents when some workers arrived to address a plumbing issue. When told who one of the workers was, Bergman said he responded by saying, “He’s a good carpenter, but not a licensed plumber.”
Bergman said Erickson came to his apartment about an hour later and told him he had been telling people he was using an unlicensed plumber and it “had to stop.” Bergman said Erickson refused to leave his apartment until Bergman said he was going to call the sheriff.
Another incident occurred after he asked maintenance workers what they were doing as they were moving items out of a deceased individual’s apartment, Bergman said. He said Erickson came to him and said it was “none of my business asking.”
“I am finding myself sick to my stomach with anxiety, fear, and stress,” Bergman said.
Bergman also read a letter he received from Erickson inviting him to a meeting to resolve any issues.
“The HRA would like to hear your side to see if all parties can come to a mutual agreement moving forward as you have been a longtime resident of the HRA,” Bergman read. “You are welcome to bring someone with you if you do not feel comfortable coming to this meeting by yourself, with the understanding this person is there for your support.”
The letter went on to say, in Bergman’s words, that if he did not respond “the HRA might consider taking more formal action as this behavior toward staff and so forth cannot continue.”
Erickson did not respond to Bergman at the recent board meeting, but confirmed in a Friday meeting with the Timberjay that Bergman did not seek to arrange a meeting.
“We welcome people coming into the office,” Erickson said. “We have an open door; come in and discuss it to try and resolve it. We work with people as much as we possibly can, but it’s a two-way street.”
Resident Patty DeRusha said that after a conversation she had with someone about a vacant apartment she was told, “There are just some things that occur in HRA business that residents don’t need to know.”
Additional complaints about interactions with Erickson were aired by resident Jim Obidowski, who said Erickson was “in my face” the day after he sent a text message last fall about several rooms in the Pioneer building that were without heat.
Resident Teri Lindsoe said the residents were taking steps to be heard.
“We are starting a residents committee,” she said. “We’re going through HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development). It’s coming.”
Erickson responded.
“We welcome that group being started,” he said. “They have to understand what their role is according to the rules. Not our rules, HUD’s rules. When people start speaking and give the indication that they know them, they’re only telling half the story. I’ll leave it at that.”
After resident Karen Neuman aired complaints about problems she encountered dealing with Erickson over the door lock to her apartment, Bergman weighed in one final time.
“I’m looking at someplace to move because I can’t take it here no more,” he said.
After almost 40 minutes, during which no board member chose to enforce the three-minute comment limit, the barrage from residents prompted a response from housing manager Paula Erickson. She said CHRA’s legal responsibility to protect residents’ confidentiality restricted what could be shared when residents asked questions of staff.
“Every unit is private,” she said. “I can’t share that information with anybody else. I can’t tell you when they passed away, who moved out, who’s moving in until that stuff actually happens. When we’re trying to do HRA business to actually keep the building safe from someone that’s breaking in, that’s going through units, unfortunately, we can’t tell you that information. But yet you feel it’s your business.”
Erickson gave examples where information restrictions led to unfounded rumors started by residents.
“None of those things are even happening,” she said. “But yet all the rumors that start create havoc in the office, which is what we assume you’re trying to do, but yet I don’t know why it’s being done, because I can’t tell you anything about the other units in the building.”
Reed Erickson attempted to bring the comments to an end. “It’s going to be ‘he said, she said, ‘so guess what – it’s done,” he said. However, former maintenance worker Tom Kennebeck, who resigned in 2015 but was in attendance, was allowed a final comment.
“All that I hope and pray for is that you can get along, respect one another,” he said. “I think any indications of harassment need to be stopped. Okay, fine. I think administration should be setting the example.”
Board member Karen Lind responded.
“Tom, can you believe we’ve come to this?” she asked. “All I want you to know is that I left this place because I dealt with it,” Kennebeck said. “There was a lot of joy here and that’s the thing that’s being killed in this place.”
A tense exchange netween Erickson and Kennebeck ensued.
“Could you reiterate just for the record, Mr. Kennebeck, the reason why you left, and did you get fired or did you resign?” Erickson said.
“I left here because …” Kennebeck began.
“It’s a simple question,” Erickson said, cutting him off. “This really is a simple question. Did you get fired or did you resign?”
“I will not answer that because that will not clarify it,” Kennebeck said.
“I have the letter right here, thank you,” Erickson said.
“I left because I was not happy,” Kennebeck said. “The board knows that.”
Erickson expressed frustration Friday with the open session.
“The residents have a right to speak, which they did,” he said. “At the same time, the HRA has a right to address those issues, but I don’t think a public meeting is the time and place to address personal resident issues. Some of them are very dated, some have actually been addressed by the board, just not addressed the way they liked.”
Erickson said his commitment to enforcing rules regarding confidentiality and noninterference with HRA staff while they are working was a likely source of the residents’ discontent.
“We hold every tenant responsible for their own actions or inactions, where I don’t believe that was done in the past,” he said. “Now the rules apply to everybody, and it’s the same rules no matter who they are. We just enforce them.”
As for the allegations that Erickson has intimidated residents?
“I don’t know how I can respond to that, because that’s never really been brought to my attention by them directly,” Erickson said. “If they have that perception, I’m sorry about that. I can’t control people’s feelings. Just to reiterate, we treat people the same, in accordance with the rules. If they don’t like it, I’m assuming they might feel intimidated. If they follow the rules, I don’t see a problem.”
In other business, the board,
Approved changes to the grievance, facility use, emergency call, and tenant charges policies.
Directed Erickson to investigate changing several light switches to motion detector switches to address concerns about lights in common areas being left on.
Discussed the bidding procedure and instructed Erickson to research the possibility of setting lower limits for board approval of expenditures.

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Deplorable

Most apartment owners and managers use ‘maintenance’ men or women for minor electrical and plumbing repairs.

Sunday, February 23