Watson named housing director

The embattled Jefferson Parish Housing Authority has a new executive director, and the new leader has ties to another parish agency with a questionable financial history.

In a special meeting on Thursday, the authority’s Board of Commissioners hired Pamela Watson as the head of the agency on a one-year contract. Watson was one of 16 people to apply for the position, which has been vacant since former director Barry Bordelon resigned in the wake of a federal audit that questioned spending practices at the agency. An interim director resigned in October after less than a month on the job.

Watson is the sister of Carol Smith, the former head of Jefferson Community Health Care Center Inc. That agency came under fire from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor in August for possible violations of state and federal laws based on the use of public funds. Watson, a council aide for former Parish Councilman Byron Lee, was mentioned in the audit for having approved invoices for her sister to be paid parish funds through the clinic, although Watson denied that allegation. It would have been illegal for Watson to participate in economic transactions that involved her sister and the parish.

Watson also previously worked for West Jefferson Medical Center as the vice president of support services. A call to the authority’s office Friday afternoon to reach Watson was not returned.

Watson’s hiring comes as Parish President John Young is investigating the authority’s actions during Bordelon’s tenure and investigating the board of commissioners. Young has said he would prefer if the board didn’t hire a new executive director because of the swirling questions.

Parish Councilman Mark Spears said it’s not uncommon for people to pop up in audits given the parish’s size and the number of projects that are happening constantly. He said the position was advertised properly, and an open review was conducted.

“It was done above board, it was transparent,” Spears said. “Just because you’re in an audit doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. … They are people in audits all the time.”

Watson’s hiring came after board Chairman Patrick Pierson selected a review committee to consider applications for the position, Commissioner Jonathan Liberto said. Although Liberto was appointed to that committee, he refused to participate because he felt the entire board should have been privy to all 16 applications. Watson was the only candidate presented by the review committee to the full board for consideration.

“I still don’t think that it was fair for me and two other people to say who the board is going to vote on,” Liberto said. “It wasn’t like there were 1,000 applications, there were only 16 and nine board members.”

However, Watson’s hiring will not squelch the controversy at the agency. Young is still pushing the board to fire former director Bordelon after he was re-hired by his former assistant in a new position. In a letter sent Election Day, Young reiterated his request that Bordelon be terminated and raised questions about some of the public assertions made about Bordelon’s job.

Young said his letter was in response to an Oct. 30 letter from the authority’s attorney, Wayne Mancuso, that claimed the board lacked the authority to fire Bordelon because that authority lies solely with the agency’s executive director. Young disputes that claim, noting that the board can vote to direct the executive director to fire Bordelon at any time. Liberto said he would support such a move.

“I think it was absurd that we rehired him,” said Liberto, who noted that he only learned about Bordelon’s hiring through media reports.

But, Young’s letter, which included legal explanations from parish attorney Deborah Forshee, also questioned whether Bordelon is actually a civil service employee. Authority officials have called Bordelon a “maintenance supervisor” and “maintenance director,” but neither position was ever advertised with the state’s Civil Service Commission as required by law, according to Forshee’s comments. In fact, the only position with a similar title is one called “maintenance foreman,” and Bordelon would have had to apply for that job when he was still serving as executive director, Forshee wrote.

Young said his most recent letter just continues his efforts to see Bordelon removed.

“It’s consistent with what I’ve said and what I’ve done in prior letters,” Young said.

Calls to Pierson were not returned Friday. The authority’s board members have been reluctant to comment about Bordelon or the agency’s public battle with Young and the Parish Council. Mancuso declined to discuss his letter to Young or any opinions he’s offered to the board on the matter.

“I don’t discuss legal action I am involved in,” Mancuso said. “I can’t discuss it.”

Spears said it’s a tad strange that the parish is expending so many resources going after the housing authority when that agency falls under federal control. He questioned Young’s motives and priorities, given looming fiscal issues in the parish.

“To me it’s a waste of resources,” Spears said. “It just makes no sense to me. … The parish needs to stay in their own lane.”