A man in a gray suit stands at a podium. A row of people are seated behind him and audience members in chairs are in the foreground.
Casius Pealer, then president of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ governing board, speaks at the ribbon cutting of the completion of the Bienville Basin project on November 13, 2019. Credit: Housing Authority of New Orleans

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s failed effort to remove tenant advocate Sharon Jasper from the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ governing board last month is not the first time she has tried to make sudden changes in leadership at the housing agency without providing the legally required justification.

She attempted to make a similar move against two HANO commissioners in 2019 while also apparently bypassing the mandated legal process, according to documents obtained by Verite. The actions raise questions about the mayor’s commitment to a consistent policy for an agency that is crucial to providing affordable housing to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Although both HANO commissioners warned the Mayor’s Office at the time about the necessary legal requirements to terminate board members, the Cantrell administration made similar missteps this year in an unsuccessful bid to oust Jasper, who Cantrell appointed in 2018 as a tenant representative.

“The Mayor’s Office does not make any decisions about the HANO board,” said Gregory Joseph, a City Hall spokesman, at a Wednesday (Nov. 30) news conference. Joseph told reporters that Cantrell’s office moved to remove Jasper solely in response to requests from HANO officials.

But it’s not clear if that same stance applies to a prior attempt by the Cantrell administration to take two people off the board of the city’s housing authority, which oversees the city’s housing voucher program and some 2,200 public housing units, managing millions in federal funds.

Unlike some other city board appointments, HANO board members do not serve at the pleasure of the mayor and can’t be removed without cause. That is in part because so much of their work involves the expenditure of federal affordable housing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The structure and requirements of local housing authority boards are designed by HUD to maintain stability, given the millions of federal dollars that flow through these institutions, said Casius Pealer — one of the commissioners Cantrell tried to remove in 2019.

“When there is a fundamental shift in political priorities, this is not a board that changes in that way,” Pealer said. “The mayor can’t change her mind.”

Cantrell’s efforts to remove Pealer and Lisha Wheeler — then the president and vice president of the board, respectively — flew under the radar at the time, with Pealer pushing back against the administration in internal emails and Wheeler quietly departing.

After being informed that Cantrell wanted to remove them, the commissioners each informed one of her top deputies of the state law that requires Cantrell to provide a formal notice that specifies reasons for removal, emails show. Under the statute, housing authority commissioners can only be removed during their terms for “neglect of duty, misconduct in office, or conviction of any felony.” 

Both Pealer and Wheeler were Cantrell appointees who joined the board in the summer of 2018, shortly after she removed four commissioners appointed by her predecessor, Mitch Landrieu, whose administration reclaimed HANO following 12 years of receivership under HUD.

Pealer and Wheeler were also attorneys with affordable housing backgrounds. Pealer had worked for the District of Columbia Housing Authority and — as a private sector attorney specializing in affordable housing issues — with other housing authorities across the country. Wheeler was a seasoned corporate attorney who had spent a decade at Fannie Mae, with experience in housing and community development. 

‘I am hereby objecting’

Pealer and Wheeler were elected to lead the board at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019. During their brief tenures, they oversaw HANO’s search to find a replacement for departing executive director Gregg Fortner, eventually tapping current agency head Evette Hester.

No one raised performance or ethics issues with either commissioner during that time, and neither member voted against the administration’s efforts, though Wheeler was known to ask tough questions during meetings, Pealer told Verite.

Then, on Nov. 5, 2019 — with about two months before the end of Pealer’s term and about four years left on Wheeler’s — both commissioners received calls from Josh Cox, then a top City Hall official who worked as a mayoral liaison to boards and commissions, seeking their resignations.

Following his call to Wheeler that same day, Cox sent a brief, formal notice of removal bearing Cantrell’s signature that read: “Thank you for promoting affordable housing in the Greater New Orleans Region, and I look forward to working with you in a different capacity as we move New Orleans forward together.”

Wheeler’s response raised several issues with the notice. Although Wheeler had first learned of the removal effort that day, Nov. 5, the notice letter was dated Oct. 2. And the letter didn’t address state law requirements for removing a commissioner, which also give a commissioner 10 days to appeal before a removal becomes final.

“If you are attempting to backdate this letter to skirt the legal notice requirements, I am hereby objecting to this as a notice of removal,” Wheeler wrote. “Please send a corrected letter that accurately reflects the date the Mayor notified me of her intent to ‘remove’ me, as well as the reasons for removal, as required by law.”

Wheeler told Verite in an email that Cox never gave her a reason for the removal. In a phone call, “he just said that the Mayor decided that she wanted to go in a different direction multiple times when I asked for a reason,” she said. Still, Wheeler decided to leave the board in November 2019.

Cox also sought Pealer’s resignation during a phone call, according to Pealer. He said Cox told him he served “at the pleasure of the mayor” and that Cantrell would pursue his removal if he didn’t resign. In subsequent emails, Pealer reminded Cox of the legal requirements for a removal and stated he would call a special board meeting if the issue wasn’t resolved.

“Even before today, I have heard it said that HANO commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” Pealer wrote to Cox. “It is my understanding that this is not exactly true. The reason there is a notice and cause requirement is not to undermine the chief executive, but rather to enhance the stability of an independent agency.”

“In the end, I am proud of my service on HANO’s board this past year, and I have enduring respect for Mayor Cantrell and faith in her administration,” Pealer added, offering to quietly depart the board at the end of his prescribed term, Dec. 31 of that year, instead.

Cox responded on Nov. 7: “You may continue to serve in your current role until your term expires.”

Pealer told Verite he believed Cantrell’s attempted shuffling of the board would only contribute to the public perception of chaos at the top level of the long-beleaguered agency.

“It seemed like the housing authority was about to enter a period of some stability and rejuvenation because of this new director, and instead the chair and the vice-chair were being kicked off the board,” Pealer said. “It seemed like a step backwards for the agency.”

A spokesperson for HANO directed questions to the Mayor’s Office, which did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The Cantrell administration similarly skipped legal requirements this year in the attempted removal of Jasper, a tenant advocate on the HANO board who has said she was “targeted” because the HANO administration found her advocacy work disruptive. 

In their initial October removal request, Cantrell staff never gave Jasper reasons for removal. A subsequent November letter accused Jasper of “neglect of duty” and “misconduct in office” but didn’t elaborate on the charges. The City Council ultimately overturned Cantrell’s request and reinstated Jasper last month, citing procedural failures by the Mayor’s Office to properly inform Jasper of the removal.

The administration later gave councilmembers testimony from HANO officials and staffers who accused Jasper of establishing a hostile and threatening environment that made HANO staffers fear for their safety.

In Pealer’s final meeting leading the board on Dec. 10, 2019, two other commissioners thanked him for his leadership, with Jasper lauding Pealer for his rapport with residents and other board members alike: “We’re going to miss you, but I hope there’s some way we can get you back,” Jasper said, according to a recording. “Not too many like you, Casius.”

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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...