Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council wants shakeup at Housing Authority

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
March 6, 2008

VERNON - A number of Town Council members say they want a shakeup at the Housing Authority over the apparent disregard, mismanagement, and lack of response over the plight of an 87-year-old woman burned out of her Franklin Street apartment last fall.

The woman, Eleanor Johnson, had been temporarily placed in a Manchester apartment after the Sept. 11 fire at the Francis J. Pitkat Congregate Living Center.

But last month Vernon Housing Authority Executive Director Catherine F. Melan told Johnson that her home for the last three years had been rented to someone else. The family protested, and the mayor and the Town Council intervened, resulting in Johnson being allowed to return to her Vernon apartment March 1.

While seemingly rectified, the response appears to be negligent and calls for an explanation, said council members, who asked Melan to appear at their Tuesday meeting.

All they got was an ambiguous letter from Housing Authority Board of Commissioners Chairman Peter Olson claiming to be an "autonomous agency" whose staff did no wrong.

Instead, the letter blames the Manchester Housing Authority for supplying "incorrect or incomplete information" to Vernon officials regarding Johnson's placement and lack of a signed lease.

"Review of the events has led us to conclude that the policies and procedures of the Housing Authority and the actions of the administration and staff were appropriate given the information they had," Olson wrote.

Melan has said she thought Johnson was staying in Manchester permanently as Johnson had signed a lease for the apartment there.

Carol Shanley, executive director of the Manchester Housing Authority said today, however, "that must be a misunderstanding," adding that Vernon officials were told Johnson could stay with them on a "month-to-month basis."

"We gave her an apartment, and if she wanted to stay she could have," Shanley said. "We let Vernon know that we were taking her in, and they were to pay for her move, and they did. That was the extent of the conversations we had with Vernon."

Olson's letter redirecting blame was not the answer council members wanted.

"We requested Katie Melan to be here and explain what happened and what procedures were in place if something like this happened in the future, but all we have is this letter that doesn't address our questions or give us the information we asked for," a clearly angry Democratic Councilwoman Pauline Schaefer said.

"The letter itself is almost arrogant," Councilman Michael Winkler, also a Democrat, said. "It doesn't tell us anything and pretty much tells us to take a hike."

Republican Councilman Daniel Anderson questioned how the authority was structured and if the council or the mayor had any real power in this situation.

Town Administrator Christopher Clark said the authority is federally funded and the executive director answers to the board of commissioners, whose members are nominated by the mayor and appointed by the council.

"We may revoke or revise their authority, if the council still feels unsatisfied," Mayor Jason L. McCoy said.

Republican Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock said she spoke with Melan and was told that both she and Olson had conflicts Tuesday evening and could not attend the meeting.

But basically, "they blame Manchester on the miscommunication over the lease, which the family disputes, and they have no plans to change their policy," Wheelock said.

The real problem is that Vernon officials spoke only to Manchester officials and never really conversed with Eleanor Johnson, Wheelock said, adding, "I have a feeling they've learned their lesson."

Not everyone agreed, however.

"They have been unresponsive and we should at least have a resolution to that effect," Councilman Bill Campbell said.

©Journal Inquirer 2008