3 candidates dropped out of running for CEO of JHA

JHA Investigation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax has learned that three candidates in the running to take over as CEO of the Jacksonville Housing Authority have dropped out.

JHA serves about 2,600 families, but for nearly two years the agency has not had a permanent leader. The previous CEO was fired over sexual misconduct allegations by several employees.

Now, a councilman is suggesting that the board put a pause on looking for a new CEO because the board making the decision only has four members, and it’s supposed to have seven.

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City Councilman Garrett Dennis, liaison to the JHA, asked the four-member board to put their search for a CEO on hold.

The mayor made emergency appointments of two board members, and the city council will vote on these appointments on Tuesday night, bringing the board number to six.

“My whole thing was not who they hire because that’s their independent decision, but to have a full board as they move forward,” Dennis said.

Dennis believes that the CEO decision should be made by seven members, not the current four.

Action News Jax has uncovered a conflict between Dennis and one of those members.

In a Sept. 16 letter to City Council President Tommy Hazouri, JHA Vice-Chair Jon McGowan wrote about how difficult the search has been.

McGowan said, referring to councilman Dennis, “I do not understand why, after being involved in the CEO search process for months without objection to the four-member board he has suddenly decided we should stop before the finish line.”

The letter also said, “I no longer have the emotional fortitude to be berated, belittled and personally attacked by members of council.”

A resolution asking that JHA not make a CEO hiring decision until all seven member seats are filled will also go before the council.

Councilman Rory Diamond commented that Dennis' interference lead at least one qualified person to drop out.

Action News Jax has acquired the letter to City Council President Tommy Hazouri from JHA Vice-Chair Jon McGowan wrote about how difficult the search has been:

President Hazouri,
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
I want to inform you that I will no longer be engaged in the council discussion regarding the actions of the Jacksonville Housing Authority’s response to our hiring a CEO nor our response to the Inspector General report. Over the past year, it has been an honor to serve on the Jacksonville Housing Authority and to help our low income residents, and I will continue to do so, but I will no longer subject myself to personal attacks in a public forum. I am appalled and heartbroken at the lack of decorum that took place at the Rules Committee. My character was allowed to be attacked and I was not afforded an opportunity to speak nor respond.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
I have been nothing but respectful to this council and Council Member Dennis. I firmly believe that the council should have a voice in the Jacksonville Housing Authority and, as a board, we have honored the role of council liaison. Council Member Dennis has been treated, not just as a liaison, but as an ex-officio member of the board. He has been afforded not only the opportunity to speak at the meetings, but also to engage in the debate even to the point he engaged in the CEO search process. I personally invite him to every board and committee meeting (as can be supported by emails and meeting recordings where he publicly thanked me for continuing to involve him in the process). When he wanted to voice his opinion on our CEO candidates and who we were hiring as CEO, he was active in the process. I took his call to hear his opinion on the candidates. I asked the CEO search firm to include him in the process of determining what we want in a CEO. I fought on his behalf when he requested a copy of all the resumes of applicants, not just those presented. I fielded texts from him as we conducted the CEO interviews in which he lobbied against certain candidates (as can be supported by text messages). Councilman Dennis even called me to personally thank me for including him in the process and for taking a leadership role in ensuring the process was fair and open.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
When Councilman Dennis, without notice to the board nor inviting one member of the board to Rules Committee meeting, introduced a resolution stating we were operating an improper manner during the CEO search and that we had failed to respond to the IG report, I was asked to respond and provide facts. I did what any reasonable person would do in this situation; I provided facts to the council. I called the 18 other council members and offered to answer any questions. I also emailed the 18 other council members to offer supporting data. I was asked to attend the council meeting by members of the city council in order to provide facts and answer questions. I believe I did so in a respectful manner as is befitting the body. The response by CM Dennis was to call me a liar in public.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
For a year, a committee which I chair has worked extensively on addressing the IG report. When I saw the report, I did what a legal mind does, I reviewed every document referenced in the report to ascertain the best course of action. I realized that the past CEO had left the agency in a state of disrepair. Our board by-laws were over 20 years old and no longer in compliance with the city ordinance. The 300 page employee policy manual had been piecemealed together, with some policies over 25 years old. Meeting with general counsel, the CEO, and the committee, we determined to not just make minor corrections to the manual, but to engage in a complete rewrite. That process takes time. You can’t just rewrite the document; you must cross reference with current federal, state, and city laws to ensure compliance. We set an ambitious goal of 6 months to complete the task and we were on schedule, until COVID-19. Even with COVID-19 and the need to shift focus, work continued behind the scenes. By August 21, through a massive effort by general counsel, interim-CEO Dwayne Alexander, and JHA staff, the final draft was nearing completion to be presented back to the committee in September. From the perspective of all parties involved, we were doing exactly what we were supposed to do.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
When I stated to the full council that we are 90% complete with our response to the report, that is an accurate and truthful statement. I never claimed we had submitted a final report to the IG, nor did I claim that we had completed 90% of the individual items. We have done 90% of the work to complete the process, with some items complete and some items near completion. I was specific in my language to the council. After the Neighborhoods Committee, I received an email from Council Member Freeman stating that he spoke with the IG and that there as a disagreement from the IG on that statement. I immediately called the IG to see why she felt that way. At the offset of the conversation we immediately realized the miscommunication. She had been informed by Councilman Dennis that I had claimed we had already finalized 90% of the work, which is clearly incorrect. We also discussed communication between the parties involved and the IG. A request had been made by the IG for an official update by September 18, 2020. A request which had yet to be responded to as the deadline had not been reached. We discussed informal communications and a misunderstanding over how much communication had been made with the IG updating on progress. Simply, staff had been communicating with the IG, but not with the amount of detail she wanted. There was no cause for alarm, she just requested more detail. We then had a conversation about all the work which had taken place and she agreed we were on the correct path. This was a minor miscommunication that was easily remedied through a simple phone call.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
I immediately called Councilman Freeman to provide an update, leaving a voicemail. I then called Councilman Dennis. Feeling that what was a minor disagreement over semantics which could be easily remedied, I told the councilman that I did not think that we were saying conflicting statements and that there was no need for this to devolve. I felt that, as adults, we could clear up any misunderstanding. The council member then entered into a very personal and strongly worded attack. When I tried to speak, he told me to “shut up and let him talk.” When he said it was disrespectful for me to speak to other council members behind his back, I interrupted and stated it was disrespectful for him to introduce legislation attacking the board without notifying us or attempting to resolve it with the board. He then began to raise his voice to talk over me and then abruptly hung up. I immediately relayed this conversation to our general counsel.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
As stated above, at the following Rules Committee I was again personally attacked, both by Council Member Dennis and Chair Priestly-Jackson. Councilwoman Priestly-Jackson publicly chastised me for reaching out to council members, an action I took at the request of multiple council members. She also stated I had referred to JHA staff as “my staff” and was overstepping my authority as a board member. The statement to which she is referring is from an email I sent the entire council. “I have requested our staff compile an overview of the actions taken by the Jacksonville Housing Authority Board to address the Inspector General report.” I do not feel that making a request to JHA staff, through the CEO, or in this case to the CEO is an inappropriate action. I also want to note that one of the policy changes I personally drafted for our board bylaws is designed to limit board interaction with staff. I feel there should be a safeguard in place to prevent overzealous board members from attempting to micromanage the agency. I also had discussion on a policy addressing the council liaison’s interactions with staff, as Councilman Dennis has on occasion conducted personal “investigations” into the inner workings of the agency, showing up unannounced to conduct audits. An action that eventually required the intervention of the CEO, which caused a schism between them. It was determined that it was best we not address that item in a policy, however we did address the board’s interactions. Our role is broad-based, the CEO’s role is the details. Had I been afforded an opportunity to speak, I would have gladly clarified this point. Instead, Councilman Dennis was allowed to engage in a third public attack on my character. I was painted as a rogue board member, somehow acting completely inappropriately because I responded to requests for information and stated facts to the council.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
I do not understand why there is this sudden public criticism of the Jacksonville Housing Authority Board by Councilman Dennis. I do not understand why, after being involved in the CEO search process for months without objection to the four member board, he has suddenly decided that we should stop just before the finish line. I do not understand why Councilman Dennis did not ask the board for an update on our progress with the IG report before making these accusations. I do not understand why this has devolved into personal attacks against me and other members of the board, namely Commissioner Brock who is our resident board member (the JHA has one board member who lives in public housing and represents the residents to the board).
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
I do know I am a human being and I have feelings. I pride myself on being diligent in my work and serving the people of Jacksonville in any capacity presented. I desire the respect of the council and our city leaders. I am heartbroken that my character has come under attack simply because I am doing what we are tasked to do. We should be able to engage in a professional public discourse. To put forth facts and to discuss them. To disagree, but in a respectful manner. I am more than willing to engage in that level of discourse, however that is not what is happening.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee
It is my hope that on Monday, the Jacksonville Housing Authority board will pass a resolution responding to the accusations which have been made and providing a full account of our actions. I will ask that the resolution be presented by either our Chair Charles Griggs or by the Chair of the CEO Search Committee Rosalyn Philips. I hope they will be treated in a more respectful manner. If the council requests me to return on this item, I will obviously comply. However, I no longer have the emotional fortitude to be berated, belittled, and personally attacked by members of the council.
Jon McGowan Vice-Chair, Jacksonville Housing Authority Chair, Governance, Oversight, and Compliance Committee