Johnson wants JMHA resignations

STEUBENVILLE — Ongoing problems at the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority could lead to the agency falling into receivership, despite years of trying to resolve issues, according to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta.

Johnson sent a letter to authority board members and those who appoint board members asking for those who have been on the board more than 18 months to resign. That would include board President Dr. Frank L. Petrola, Gerald “Yonk” DiLoreto and JoAnn Welday. Petrola was appointed as a county representative and DiLoreto as a Steubenville representative. Petrola declined comment until he has had time to study the letter. DiLoreto said he will not resign.

“The problems are with Congress and HUD,” he said. Welday did not return a call for comment.

Johnson said in an interview that he has been working with HUD and the housing authority for five years on a resolution to issues. He was called in to discuss security and alleged criminal activities. He remained engaged with the authority through a protracted and contentious search for an executive director that started in 2014 and proceeded through two directors before longtime JMHA employee Debbie Bailey became permanent executive in 2016. During that time, an audit finding for the return of $964,365 to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was issued relating to a contract under former director Joe Costantini. Documents later were found resolving $213,000 of the total. HUD also has been monitoring occupancy rates and said a $5.87 million loan for energy savings needs to be realized to prevent a default on the loan.

The authority had hired Pat Mader in a split vote, with Petrola and DiLoreto refusing to participate, to serve as executive in October 2015. DiLoreto, Petrola and Welday voted to remove her the following July. In June 2015, the board cast a split vote to turn down Jim Mavromatis, who was security director, for the executive position. Mavromatis went on to become Steubenville’s city manager.

Johnson’s letter, dated Friday, says he and his staff have been engaged with various agencies and local and federal government and officials on JMHA to identify and implement corrective actions.

“It has been more than five years since I first met with stakeholders, and I am concerned that the lack of progress points to a lingering, larger problem,” Johnson said.

He said efforts through his office and the Cleveland HUD office have included support of several funding requests, JMHA board member training initiatives and public meetings.

“These efforts identified practical solutions well within the JMHA’s authority to implement, yet there has been little change at JMHA. I have concluded that significant internal problems persist with the JMHA board,” Johnson wrote.

“Recently, my district director, Sarah Keeler, along with representatives from the Cleveland HUD office met with the JMHA executive director to discuss the situation. The conclusions of all present, though unsettling, were painfully obvious: Without serious changes in leadership, membership and direction of the JMHA board, the JMHA is in danger of going into receivership,” he said.

During the interview, Johnson said HUD is running out of options for JMHA and is becoming increasingly frustrated, too.

“If HUD takes over, we are going to lose all local control of the JMHA that it now has local authority to do, to manage Section 8 and government provided assisted housing in Jefferson County. We don’t want that,” he said. Johnson said he doesn’t have the authority to remove board members but is calling on those on the board for more than 18 months to resign to “get a new set of eyes” on the issues.

“I firmly believe we are at the precipice of losing our JMHA authority. Yet, these nagging problems are now in the hands of the community, the JMHA and those that appoint its members,” he said.

“I thank you for all of your heartfelt efforts, but it is now clear to me that this is not a problem Washington, D.C. — neither HUD nor my office — can come in and fix,” Johnson wrote.