The Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock, known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance, is the largest public housing agency in Arkansas and assists thousands of low-income citizens of Little Rock. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
A Pulaski County circuit judge will decide by early December whether Little Rock officials denied due process to two former members of the governing board of the city’s public housing agency in September.
Six of the city’s 10 directors voted Sept. 26 to remove Leta Anthony and Lee Lindsey from the Metropolitan Housing Alliance’s board of commissioners, a five-member body that has been under local and federal scrutiny for its spending and management decisions in recent weeks.
Lindsey and Anthony sued the city and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. in October, calling the removal vote “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”
Anthony said Tuesday on the witness stand in Circuit Judge Cara Connors’ courtroom that she and Lindsey asked the city to allow them to call witnesses to support their case and make opening and closing statements to the directors. The city did not allow witnesses and would only allow Anthony and Lindsey to speak if their attorney, Sylvester Smith, did not speak at the hearing, Anthony said.
Connors is tasked with judicial review, meaning she will decide whether the city board’s decision met or violated Anthony and Lindsey’s constitutional right to due process.
“I’m not going to get into calling witnesses that can say, ‘This happened, and this happened,’” Connors said. “I’m going to be able to determine whether Ms. Anthony and Mr. Lindsey were given a fair opportunity to present evidence, and whatever was presented against them, whether they were offered an even opportunity to rebut the evidence that was before them.”
Several reports from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the past few years have pointed out red flags in MHA’s financial and management practices. HUD labeled MHA “troubled” in August after surveying its physical condition, financial condition, management and use of its capital fund. A Sept. 1 report from HUD’s Quality Assurance Division flagged several “potentially disallowed” spending decisions.
Former MHA employees accused the board of commissioners of misconduct in 2020 and 2021, and HUD’s Departmental Enforcement Center said in April 2022 that the agency failed to comply with federal, state and its own purchasing rules for years.
On Sept. 12, Scott asked the entire housing board to resign in light of the August and September HUD reports; Lindsey, Anthony and Commissioner Kerry Wright, all refused. Commissioner Branndii Peterson resigned upon request, and Commissioner Louis Jackson had already said he planned to resign.
At the same hearing that removed Lindsey and Anthony, the city directors voted to keep Wright on the MHA board since he had only been a member since March and was not privy to most of the issues that concerned HUD.
Timeline of legal filings
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter agreed Tuesday to a deadline of Nov. 10 to provide Connors with proof the city gave Anthony and Lindsey due process.
According to Arkansas law, a local governing body may remove a housing authority board member “for inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office” with a majority vote.
The vote can only occur after the commissioner is presented with the charges against him or her at least 10 days before the hearing, and the commissioner must have the opportunity to present his or her case “in person or by counsel,” the law states.
Scott notified the commissioners of the charges and the hearing on Sept. 14, according to letters he sent each of the five commissioners, which Carpenter provided the court as evidence.
Smith will have until Nov. 27 to respond to Carpenter’s Nov. 10 filings. Carpenter will have up to three days to respond to Smith, and Connors will then issue a ruling, the judge said.
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Court documents filed by Smith say Lindsey and Anthony are suing in their “official capacity as housing commissioner[s].” Responses filed by Carpenter do not include this title.
Connors said at the end of the hearing that the question of whether Lindsey and Anthony are suing in their official or individual capacity “must be addressed.”
In October, Connors granted Smith’s request for an injunction to prevent the city board from appointing new MHA commissioners. Carpenter then asked Connors to postpone the injunction until after Tuesday’s hearing.
Connors denied the request, but she and the two attorneys later reached an agreement that the city could appoint two new MHA commissioners and leave two seats open in case Lindsey and Anthony’s removal is overturned.
The injunction will remain in effect until Connors’ ruling, she said Tuesday.
The city directors picked Bruce James and Karen Buchanan from a pool of 12 applicants to fill the remaining two MHA board seats on Oct. 17.
Smith and Carpenter questioned both Anthony and Little Rock Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson, a witness for the plaintiffs, during Tuesday’s hearing.
Richardson is the city board’s liaison to MHA. He was one of two directors to vote against removing Anthony and Lindsey from the MHA board, and he voted present on the motion to retain Wright.
He said Tuesday that he believed there was not enough evidence to justify calling a removal hearing and removing Lindsey and Anthony while retaining Wright. He also said he made a comment after the removal hearing that Lindsey and Anthony “didn’t have the complexion for the connections,” referring to the fact that they are Black while Wright is white.
Richardson said he made the comment “at the risk of sounding facetious.”
However, Anthony said on the witness stand that she believed the removal hearing was “a present-day lynching” and that her reputation has taken a hit since then.
Carpenter said the impact of the removal on Lindsey and Anthony’s reputations should not be considered part of due process. Anthony disagreed, mentioning that MHA commissioners are not paid for overseeing the agency.
“Anytime holders of the public trust shape a negative narrative about citizens who are volunteers… yes, they are responsible for the impact on their reputations,” Anthony said. “It is their moral responsibility to always make sure that the truth is given and not to just shape a lie because it fits their agenda.”
Smith and Anthony argued Tuesday that the current MHA board and any decisions it makes are invalid, citing a federal statute that requires public housing authority boards to have one member who lives in subsidized housing.
Jackson filled this requirement for MHA until he announced in August that he would resign because he no longer received housing aid, though he participated in a September board meeting.
Neither Wright nor the two new commissioners appointed in October live in subsidized housing, Anthony said.
The three board members voted Wednesday to dissolve the five-member board of MHA’s nonprofit arm, the Central Arkansas Housing Corporation (CAHC).
The following day, attorney Rickey Hicks filed a motion to intervene in Lindsey and Anthony’s suit against the city, claiming the MHA board’s decision was invalid due to the residency requirement.
Hicks, who was not present at Tuesday’s court hearing, represents ousted CAHC board members Lindsey, Anthony and former MHA board member and chairman Kenyon Lowe, as well as CAHC itself.
Carpenter said Tuesday that he believed federal law should allow the three current MHA board members to remain in place while the agency is recovering financially.
Hicks’ motion to intervene also states that the CAHC board should have received advance notice and a hearing before the MHA board voted to remove them.
The MHA board dissolved the CAHC board in an effort to obtain financial records necessary to complete an audit of the agency that HUD requires every year, since MHA is four years behind, the commissioners said last week.
Anthony said Tuesday that MHA has sent FORVIS, a local auditing firm, some of the documents it needs to complete the fiscal year 2019 audit.
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