Near tears, the mother of four said she was grateful to have shelter, but …
She had no electricity or running water. She had trouble caring for her children. She hadn’t had a shower in weeks. She pleaded for help.
Who is she? An undocumented migrant worker? Some hapless villager from a Third World country?
Nope. A resident of the Peoria Housing Authority at Harrison Homes.
“There were shocked faces,” says an executive board member of the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria who attended the Oct. 7 PHA meeting. “What is the accountability?”
That is the key question. The resident’s complaint would have made news, had there been any reporter there to hear it. Since there is not, it did not, which reinforces LWVGP efforts to double its corps of Local Government Observers (LOGO).
For decades, the national and state LWV have made it a priority to have impartial watchers attend government meetings. Locally, former At-Large City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Dorothy Sinclair spent countless hours observing City Hall before she ever ran for office. Cheryl Budzinski was in LOGO before and after her time on the Peoria County Board.
But LOGO were intended to be a complement to professional journalists, not a replacement. There is some overlap. Observers are to report the facts, not comment. But concerns are taken to the executive board for review at monthly meetings, not necessarily investigated for publication the next day.
PHA is just one example. Its practices have been discussed by the LWVGP executive board several times. Some of those concerns are being addressed. Transparency issues such as lack of meeting notices or agendas, inadequate information, no or poor website access have improved. (There will be more on PHA transparency next month.)
LWVGP president Connie Romanus has served as PHA LOGO. She seems cautiously optimistic about a turnaround under Executive Director Jackie Newman, who handles both PHA and Springfield Housing Authority under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“Overall, I think Ms. Newman and her team have made a positive difference for PHA in terms of policies and organization to turn over units quicker, collect rents, comply with HUD directives and deal with safety issues,” Romanus says.
No doubt having public observers helps. But the latest PHA meeting illustrates the limits, as well. As Romanus notes, minutes are not available until they have cleared the PHA board, which takes two months. The League report will be online sooner, but will include only what was discussed at the meeting.
In the meantime, what about the mother of four?
PHA board chairman Carl Cannon said the situation is being addressed. He referred any comment to Newman, who is most familiar with HUD regulations, particularly concerning privacy.
Newman said she could not discuss a particular case. She could say PHA has not been notified about a property without water and lights. And she could say it has been “a constant battle” to keep water flowing at Harrison because residents have a tendency to flush items that shouldn’t be flushed, which clogs the system. The answer lies in educating residents and in more frequent system cleaning — which will cost more money.
“I can’t fix in 18 months what’s been happening for 18 years,” Newman said. “… That’s the rest of the story.”