Sacramento regional fair housing commission facing dissolution

The Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission is on its last legs after allegations of financial wrongdoing prompted three major cities to cut funding support and left Sacramento County considering whether to dissolve the organization.

In an audit earlier this year, housing officials at the cities of Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and Sacramento found salary overpayments to the commission’s executive director, improper charges for employee parking and failure to follow federal contracting laws, among other problems.

The cities cited the audit’s findings as a reason for withdrawing their contributions to the commission, whose roots date back to a 1963 nonprofit established by the county. The commission expects to have $73,000 in its budget next year, not enough to pay a staff of two. It now relies on legal interns to provide its key services – mediation and advice for low-income residents involved in rental housing disputes.

Sacramento County staff recommended this week that county supervisors stop funding and abolish the agency. The recommendation said Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and Sacramento found reliable alternatives for the same services by contracting with nonprofits such as Sacramento Self-Help Housing, and that the county could do the same.

Supervisors instead decided they needed more time to evaluate the problems at the commission and consider its fate. They voted to provide an unspecified amount of money to keep the commission running through January, when the board will reconsider the matter.

The county and cities have relied on the commission to help them reduce impediments to fair housing to meet federal requirements and receive Community Development Block Grants that assist low-income areas.

The commission’s acting executive director, Betty Gwiazdon, said the agency continues to provide valuable services and the cities’ audit isn’t completely correct. “There are things we could challenge but it doesn’t matter – it’s over and done with,” she told supervisors.

The three cities estimated they were overbilled about $10,000 combined in three years for former executive director Barbara Lehman’s salary. The overbilling was the result of Lehman’s payment agreement in which she was compensated separately for work for the commission and its nonprofit arm, the audit found.

The Bee was not able to reach Lehman for a response. She retired in June, Gwiazdon said.

The cities also found that they were wrongly billed for parking that was not used by commission employees and in one case billed for a case that was not in their jurisdiction. In total, the cities estimated they were overbilled about $12,000 combined in three years.

The audit also raised questions about the reliability of the commission’s work, but also acknowledged that the organization had taken steps to remedy the shortcomings. For instance, the commission was not routinely collecting demographic information about its clients, which is central to fair housing claims, but started doing so.

The agency is an outgrowth of the Human Relations Commission, which was established 50 years ago, and became a joint powers authority with the cities and the county in 2008. In five years, the commission’s annual budget dropped from $742,000 to $233,000.

The reduction is largely the result of funding cuts by the cities and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency in the last year following the audit.

In December 2011, officials issued a number of findings of mismanagement but also made repeated requests for additional documents. As late as May of this year, officials were pressing the commission for records, such as those involving the compensation to Lehman.

“These agencies have identified operational deficiencies, some repeatedly, and have made efforts to work with (commission) staff to address these deficiencies,” Sacramento City Manager John Shirey wrote council members earlier this year. “Despite these efforts, (commission) staff has not been responsive and I no longer see added value in the city’s contribution.”