Sharon Jasper gets a hug from a supporter following the Nov. 29 City Council vote to reinstate her to the HANO Board of Commissioners, overturning Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s removal. Credit: Michelle Liu/Verite News

The New Orleans City Council on Tuesday (Nov. 29) overruled an attempt by Mayor LaToya Cantrell to remove Sharon Jasper from the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ governing board, pointing to a series of procedural blunders made by the administration in its effort to terminate Jasper.

The five councilmembers present at Jasper’s appeal hearing voted unanimously to reinstate her as a commissioner on the HANO Board of Commissioners, citing a failure by Cantrell’s office to properly notify Jasper of her dismissal or provide a reason for the termination at the time.

The council also declined to consider newer claims by the Mayor’s Office and HANO officials that Jasper had demonstrated neglect of duty and misconduct in office in her role as a commissioner.

Jasper, who Cantrell appointed to the board in 2018 as one of two tenant representatives and who herself was a public housing resident for four decades, first learned of the attempted removal in October through a tersely worded email from Cantrell. 

Jasper’s term is not set to expire until the end of next year. Under state law, housing authority commissioners can only be removed in the middle of their terms for “neglect of duty, misconduct in office, or conviction of any felony.” And the mayor must provide a removal notice specifying the charges that led to the decision. But the mayor’s message — addressed to HANO Executive Director Evette Hester — didn’t give any reasons for Jasper’s dismissal, leading Jasper to believe the effort was illegal.

After a reporter’s inquiry, Cantrell’s office later provided Verite with a document dated Nov. 17 accusing Jasper of “neglect of duty” and “misconduct in office,” but did not elaborate on the exact nature of those accusations. An assistant city attorney who attended Tuesday’s meeting to provide legal guidance told councilmembers that neither letter was legally sufficient.

Jasper sought to appeal the attempted termination, bringing the dispute to City Council. Jasper has argued that Hester “targeted” her because the administration found Jasper’s tenant advocacy disruptive. 

During Tuesday’s heated appeal hearing, HANO officials accused Jasper of establishing a hostile and threatening environment that made HANO staffers fear for their safety, leading multiple board members to request Jasper’s removal. Their claims were met with frustrated outbursts from several of Jasper’s supporters in attendance. 

“Rather than help maintain an atmosphere of respect and decorum during the public board meetings, Ms. Jasper routinely invited residents to meetings to express their hostility and their disdain,” Hester told councilmembers.

In a Tuesday interview, Gregory Joseph, Cantrell’s communications director, said the Mayor’s Office intends to put together a new letter with documentation requesting Jasper’s removal.

However, during a Wednesday news conference, Joseph told reporters the administration would respect the council’s decision to reinstate Jasper, despite calling the hearing “an unprofessional and unfair process” in a Tuesday press release.

“The City Council believes in Sharon Jasper’s contribution to the board of HANO and that she’s a valuable member of the HANO board and they took the steps to reinstate her,” Joseph said Wednesday. “And we have to stand by and respect their decision.”

‘A fishing expedition’

Cantrell’s initial notice of removal was sent on Oct. 26, the day after a contentious HANO board meeting in which residents of HANO developments and Section 8 subsidized rental homes complained about their housing conditions. At one point, a public speaker who claimed she had to hire an attorney to get her landlord to fix a number of problems at her Section 8 home — which is overseen by HANO — started yelling and pacing around the room, leading HANO Police Department officers to escort her out. Jasper told Verite that her fellow commissioners accused her of inviting members of the public to disrupt board meetings. 

Representatives for the mayor attempted to show video of that meeting as evidence of the claims by HANO officials, only to be shut down by Councilmember Eugene Green, who said the clips — which showed members of the public becoming angry — would do nothing to prove the city’s case against Jasper. 

“At the end of the day, I think that’s a fishing expedition that I don’t think is appropriate to show,” Green said. “It’s not going to prove neglect of duty and misconduct.”

Along with being a tenant representative on the board, Jasper is president of HANO’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Resident Council. Housing Choice Voucher tenants, also known as Section 8 tenants, receive federally funded assistance to live in privately owned rental homes. Jasper, who was a vocal critic of the decision to demolish the city’s major public housing complexes in the years after Hurricane Katrina, said she is a fierce advocate for affordable housing residents. 

“This hasn’t been an easy task for me to live in this city and see what the people are going through,” Jasper told councilmembers. “I’ve been told I’ve overstepped my boundaries. When I get off, when I leave and go to different developments and look at the housing and conditions the people are living in, the management of these apartments and housing — it’s a disgrace. We need your support. We need our people that’s sitting on the boards to show more concern and consideration and get involved.”

Following the appeal, Jasper told reporters she believed that justice had been served.

“I learned how to sit down and hear them say those things about me knowing that it wasn’t true. It just goes to show me how corrupt and messed up this city is,” Jasper said. “The people in this city, they have to come together and get together and do what’s right.”

Cantrell has previously faced scrutiny over her management of HANO board appointments. In 2018, she removed affordable housing advocate Andreanecia Morris from the board, likewise without explanation. 

And recently she has come under fire over her appointment of New Orleans Police Department Officer Jeffrey Vappie, a member of her security detail. A recent Fox 8 investigation found that Cantrell has spent a significant amount of time with Vappie at the city-owned Upper Pontalba apartment building, including when Vappie was on the clock. 

This story has been updated to include comments from the Mayor’s Office.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...