WESTERLY — The Westerly Housing Authority will soon begin a search for a new executive director after parting company with Carlos Lopez, who had served since August 2017.
The authority's board voted 3-2 Tuesday to put Lopez on administrative leave without pay and to offer him a severance package. Lopez had been the authority's third executive director since late 2012, when Richard Longolucco decided not to seek renewal of his contract. Two interim executive directors have also served since Longolucco's departure.
The atmosphere at the meeting, in a community room at the Park View Apartments, grew tense when Barbara Rofrano, the board's tenant representative, made the motion to put Lopez on leave and offer the severance deal. Lopez was seated at the head of the room at a table with the board and was taking the board's minutes. Following Rofrano's motion he asked the board to repeat what had been said, because he was unable to hear it.
After the board's vote Lopez read a prepared statement challenging the board's actions and defending his tenure and record. He called the board's efforts "nothing more than a concerted effort to undermine my responsibilities and management style as executive director."
Lopez said that during his tenure, he had helped raise the authority's ranking by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and put the organization in better financial standing by renegotiating utility and telephone contracts "to save thousands" and increasing returns on invested funds.
He also said that he had succeeded in obtaining a HUD Resident Opportunities and Self Sufficiency grant that allowed for the hiring of a resident services coordinator. Westerly was the only housing authority in the state to win the grant, according to Lopez.
"As executive director my passion and hard work have yielded documented and proven positive results," Lopez said, reading from the statement.
The authority's properties have a 98 percent occupancy rate. In May, Lopez became a certified public property professional manager through the Institute for Real Estate Management. "Unfortunately, I have found my achievements, despite these efforts, have been continually undervalued and marginalized by this board," Lopez said.
He went on to say that he had been subjected to a hostile work environment, "personally disrespected by members of the board in closed session and in public meetings" and that he was approached by the staff and residents who said that board members had "coached" them "to protest against him." Lopez also questioned whether his employment contract with the authority allowed him to be placed on unpaid leave.
Noelle Clapham, a lawyer with offices in Providence and Wakefield, said the authority's contract with Lopez allowed the board to terminate his employment for cause or based on a majority vote. "In the alternative you can offer a severance package but it's entirely up to you," said Clapham, who was hired as special counsel for labor matters.
Terms of the proposed severance agreement were unclear as of Friday. The board failed to make a copy of the agreement available to The Sun despite the newspaper's contention that the agreement is a public document. The board's lawyer, George Comolli, initially said he would provide a copy of the agreement on Wednesday but did not and later referred questions about the agreement to Clapham.
In an email, Clapham said on Friday that she would review whether the agreement is a public document. Lopez has 21 days to review the agreement and decide whether he will accept it. The Sun's efforts to obtain a copy of Lopez' employment contract were also unsuccessful.
The housing authority operates the Park View Apartments on Dixon Street, Chestnut Court on Chestnut Street and various scattered units. The units consist of one three-bedroom home, six duplexes, two three-bedroom apartments and 10 two-bedroom apartments.
The two apartment complexes primarily house individuals who are income-qualified and 62 years old or older. The family scattered sites program provides housing to income qualified families. The authority also offers a housing choice voucher program that provides rental assistance to families who are income qualified.
In conversations with The Sun, Lopez said he believed the board's actions reflected its tendency to "micromanage" by getting overly involved in vendor selection and other management decisions. He said the board's actions, at times, have put the authority's properties at risk and could detract from residents' quality of life. "The board interferes in the day-to-day operations, which is prohibited," Lopez said.
He also speculated that board members did not like his advocacy of a change in the state's Housing Choice Voucher Program. Rhode Island, unlike some other New England states, allows landlords to advertise that they do not take the so-called Section 8 vouchers or the potential tenants who hold them. Lopez has testified before the General Assembly in favor of changing the state's housing voucher law.
Gary Murano, chairman of the Westerly Housing Authority board, said he voted to put Lopez on leave and offer him a severance package because "it wasn't a good fit. That was the way I felt and I think that is how the two other commissioners felt."
Murano and board members Mike Gulluscio and Rofrano voted for the leave and severance motion, and members Lauren Matarese and Brian Lumnah voted in opposition.
According to Murano, William Valentine, who was Lopez' predecessor, "was a great fit but he left to pursue a better opportunity."
Murano, who has been on the board for 33 years, disputed Lopez' assertions against the board. "I don't know what made him say some of that stuff," he said.
Murano said that Lumnah has served on the board for 30 years, and Matarese has been on the board for 10 years.
The housing board is appointed by the Town Council. It receives its funding from HUD, rent payments, grants, and investment revenue.
The board has scheduled a special meeting for Monday at 6 p.m. in the meeting room of the Chestnut Court apartment complex, 5 Chestnut St. The board is expected to discuss appointing an interim executive director and the process it will use for conducting a search for a permanent candidate. On Tuesday the board agreed to have Murano and Lumnah serve as a search committee.
This article was edited at 2:11 p.m. on July 15, 2019 to correct the organization from which Carlos Lopez earned certification as a public property professional manager.