Director’s Arrest Just Tip of Housing Commission Problems

Director’s Arrest Just Tip of Housing Commission Problems essential

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 22, 2014)

The arrest and subsequent resignation of Ferndale Housing Commission Director Debra Wilson for entering sick residents’ homes and swapping out prescription narcotics for Tylenol is the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems.

As Wilson’s charges play out in court, residents have begun speaking out about mistreatment they have experienced. A look at the Commission itself reveals an atmosphere that allows problems to go unchecked and intentionally silences any complaints or questions.

It is not just dollars and drugs that are at stake, but the safety, health and day to day living conditions of dozens of elderly, low income and disabled residents. These residents rely on the Commission to set the budget, oversee the administration, and protect their interests. Yet they are silenced by rules that punish those who speak up.

In addition to documented policies that expressly curb resident feedback, open Meetings Act violations prevent ctechadpublic and resident involvement. Ignoring requests for public information makes outside accountability nearly impossible.

In the time since Wilson’s arrest the Commission’s website,, went from a functioning source of information, to a scrubbed-clean landing page, to being disabled completely.

In spite of serious felony charges against a long-standing Director, the Commission has given no signs of further investigation into the administration, giving Wilson’s second in command, Emily Vickey, a scrutiny-free step into the top spot.  The Commission also allowed Wilson to resign instead of firing her.

A huge red flag took place at the most recent Commission meeting as the five-member commission passed a secret budget that was added to the agenda at the last minute with no time for review or reflection by Commission members themselves. The budget was not included on the agenda, or in the agenda packet. Those attending the meeting were denied the right to review it or take part in public discussion.MBREW draft one

Passing the budget is arguably the most important task of a Commission, since the budget determines how the organization will be run and how public tax dollars will be spent. But at the Dec. 17 meeting the obligation for oversight was ignored and checks and balances of pubic discussion and media scrutiny were blocked, and the Commission refused to share the document both during the process and after.

Another ongoing problem is that the Commission is under pressure by those who picket the office, calling for changes to how the voucher program is administered. There is pending litigation against the Commission in regard to the voucher program, and the protests have taken place for at least three months. Protestors claim the Commission is unfair in denying or removing vouchers and not listening to residents who lose their assistance based on these decisions.

The problems with transparency are obvious. What lies beneath them remains to be seen. And CFSEM-123-OaklandCounty115-digital-ad_v2the solution is not an easy one, since the Commission has written has rules to prevent any outside oversight. The legality of their rules is questionable, but it could end up requiring some interested party to take legal action to ensure that policies and laws are being followed.

Who is the Ferndale Housing Commission?

The Commission serves elderly, disabled, and low-income residents in two apartment buildings, several homes through Ferndale, and a Section 8 voucher program. There are six Commissioners (Don Wiggins, Paul Stuart, Ryan Hertz, Carole Morency and Thomas Schimnasky) who serve five-year terms, with one Commissioner up for appointment each year.

The appointments are made by Ferndale City Council. However, beyond the appointments, the Housing Commission is a distinct entity with no oversight by City Council. Council is responsible for appointing Commissioners, but they do not have the authority to remove Commissioners once appointed. They also have no role in the budget, hiring, or any other aspect of Housing Commission activities. Commissioners are volunteers and they meet once a month.Jim Shaffer KELLER ad black

The two main responsibilities of the Commission are financial oversight and making sure that staff is doing their jobs of serving the residents and the public.

Debra Wilson and Her Replacement

The Director is the top staff person. He or she answers to the Commissioners

Deborah Wilson had been the Director for nearly 30 years. She was arrested on November 3 coming out of a resident’s apartment with stolen prescription drugs. Police say she admitted to a pattern of theft where she would illegally go into the homes of residents when they were not home and swap their prescription narcotics with over the counter pills, leaving an unknown number of residents to suffer.

Residents have come forward with stories of times when they would be in bed, or ignoring a knock at their door, only to have Wilson walk in uninvited. She would give an excuse of doing a well-fare check if she was caught off guard by a resident being home. Wilson also told residents seed8453274382_Pamela Williamsthat they were required to provide a list of medications and to update that list if it changed, residents said

After the arrest, Wilson’s second in command Emily Vickey was appointed Acting Director by the Commission. There does not appear to have been any public discussion by the Commission as to if they will do a public search or any further investigation into Vickey’s role while Wilson was abusing her power. Any questions raised by residents or protestors about Vickey’s potential involvement were dismissed. “Emily has a good heart,” said Justin Smith, legal counsel for the Commission after the meeting in November when residents, who were denied the ability to speak at the meeting, expressed concerns over being ignored in the decision-making process.

Resident Concerns and Retribution

Even prior to Wilson’s arrest, residents of Autumn House and Withington had contacted the oc115 asking for issues to be investigated, including complaints of inconsistent heat, common areas being shut down, security issues, problems getting maintenance issues resolved, residents nicholas-schrock-allstatenot being listened to by administration, and cleanliness of the facility. After Wilson’s arrest, and particularly after the Nov. 20 article in oc115, more residents came forward.

At the Nov. 19 meeting, while the Commission was in closed session, residents spoke to the oc115 only with the promise of anonymity.   Residents said that previous attempts to hold resident meetings were not well-received by Wilson. One resident said she was called into the office and reprimanded for approaching other residents about forming a residents’ discussion group. Another said that in meetings past turnout was low and that residents were afraid of speaking out.

“Some people won’t stand up for themselves because they are afraid they would be written up or evicted,” one of the residents said.

“I think for some people they don’t complain because they think things are okay, that this is the lisa schmidt lawbest they can do because they have never had anything better,” one woman said.

HUD requires commissions to allow residence boards, but those at the Autumn House and Withington facilities said Wilson would sit in on the meetings and object to everything that came up, and that she prohibited any discussion in the meetings that was not cleared through her first. They say Wilson disbanded the boards when they refused to stay on topic or to give her due respect.  When residents in Withington tried to form their own informal board, the most vocal organizer said she was called into the office and written up for disturbing other residents.

In November of 2013 residents in Autumn House were given a written notification after word had gotten back to the administration that they had been in the community room talking informally about problems. Vickey, listed as Housing Administrator on the letter, wrote “This letter is to inform you that the office of the Ferndale Housing Commission (FHC) has received reports of residents recently hosting events in the first floor community room that have not been approved by the FHC… Residents who are found to be hosting unauthorized events will receive a lease violation and possibly a termination notice from the Public Housing Program.”sidebar012stairs

Residents say that since that time common areas like the community room had been locked and not made available for use without getting special – and possibly subjective – permission.

The Ferndale Housing Commission Handbook says “residents are also encouraged to use the Community Room for informal relaxation, card playing and recreational activities,” but also that “The Community Rooms, Activities Rooms and Libraries are for the use and enjoyment of all residents of the buildings. Management reserves the right to close or lock these rooms if they are being misused, damaged, or defaced.”

The rules also state that “residents are obligated to be respectful to Ferndale Housing Commission staff and to refrain from confrontational conduct or behavior that otherwise impairs the administration and/or peaceful environment of the residential community.”

The locking of common areas is particularly hard on residents who are elderly or disabled as they rely on being part of a community that is accessible to them.

The guide also instructs residents to make complaints through the Public Housing Grievance candlewickHOLIDAYProcedure, which is not outlined in the book but is said to be available in the lobby of the administrative office. In bold, the guide states “Failure to resolve resident complaints or disputes through the approved procedure is a violation of the Public Housing Lease Agreement. Complaining to other authorities may delay settlement of complaints is disruptive. Residents unwilling to obey our rules or to resolve complaints through the proper channels are urged to find housing elsewhere.”

Open Meetings

The deterrence of complaints also seems evident in the meeting procedures for the Commission. Up until the Dec. 17 meeting, the Commission had polices in place that a person could not speak in the public comment section of the council agenda unless they submitted a request to speak 48 hours before the agenda was posted.Sahara ad with wine

After learning about this process, Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter sent a letter to Vickey asking the Commission to consider changing their procedure. Coulter wrote “In reviewing the Housing Commission’s by-laws it appears the by-laws may have the effect of eliminating or unfairly limiting the ability of the public to address the Commission during its meetings,” and “The Michigan Attorney General has said that the only procedural matters which may be established and limited by rule are: control over the length of time that a person may address a public meeting, designation of the time for public participation during a certain part of the agenda, and requirement that the speaker identify himself or herself prior to speaking. Your rules would appear to go well beyond these procedural matters.

“I would strongly urge that the Housing Commission revise its rules of procedure as soon as possible to provide an opportunity for the public to address the public body on a reasonable basis consistent with the intent of the Open Meetings Act that still allows the Commission to effectively conduct its meetings.”

Smith guided the Commission through their first genuinely open public comment period, in recent history at least, at chazzano game adthe Dec. 17 meeting. Some residents who had not been able to voice their concerns took the opportunity to do so. There were also the picketers calling for changes in the issuance of housing vouchers.

The improved public comment was mixed with setbacks though, as the Commission violated the Open Meetings Act and then passed a last-minute budget in a non-transparent way.

The Dec. 17 meeting was supposed to begin at 4pm on Dec. 14. This is the time that was listed on the Commission’s website, and was sent in an email from Vickey to the oc115. The new time of 5pm was not posted to the doors of the building or updated on their website. When asked about the time change and the notification procedure, Vickey responded that she had posted it properly. When told that the website said four, and asked where the new posting had been, she simply turned her back and walked back into her office.

Secret Budgetsteele lindbloom ad

The agenda for the Dec. 17 Housing Commission did not include the 2015 budget. When asked if there were any amendments to the agenda, Vickey stated that the budget needed to be added. She handed the budget to the Commissioners and told them they could take five minutes to look it over.

Commissioner Schimnasky expressed his concern. “We have not had any time to be involved with any of the assumptions being made. We don’t know if there are reasons. I feel uncomfortable,” he said.

The oc115 asked for a copy of the proposed budget that was being reviewed at the table, and Commissioner Wiggins said “Not at this time. It hasn’t been approved yet so it’s not a public document as of this moment.”

royal_servicesThe oc115 said “The budget you’re considering is not a public document?”

Wiggins said “No, we’re considering it tonight. Once its passed it is.”

The oc115 responded “So it’s not public until you approve it? Is that correct? Can the attorney speak to that?” To which Smith replied “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Wiggins then inquired if they could go into closed session, and the attorney said they could based on the budget including potential discussion on personnel matters.

Commissioners then went to a private room. When they returned Smith said that he had to leave and stated they only had to vote on the budget and they would be done.

Commissioners refused to entertain public discussion either before the motion to adopt the budget or after. The oc115 asked about the amount budgeted for Vickie, and Wiggins noted that seed8989483RudySerra dec jan febthe lawyer had left so he did not know if he was allowed to say or not. The question has yet to be answered.

Even after passing the budget Wiggins refused to allow transparent discussion, and Vickey has thus far not responded to the FOIA request emailed her that same evening as the meeting.

Moving Forward

At the end of the Dec. 17 Commission, Wiggins took time to address the general feeling that oversight is needed. “We have a lot to deal with, and many things on our plate that we haven’t had to deal with before. We have to approve things in order and deal with them as they come up, and that’s our job.”

The oc115 will continue to follow this situation and to advocate for openness in government body activities such as passing the budget and giving the public the information it is entitled to.  In public comment, the oc115 urged the Housing Commission to consider a positive approach to Ferndale 115_FFLmoving forward with a genuine Director search, increased resident involvement, the potential for new leadership, ideas and partnerships with outside organizations, and the importance of following of Open Meetings Act procedures.

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