A woman stands at a podium. Standing behind her are two women and a man.
Evette Hester, the executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, speaks to reporters at the agency’s main office on Touro Street on Thursday, December 8, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite News

Following renewed requests from Housing Authority of New Orleans officials, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is again seeking the removal of a tenant advocate from the agency’s governing board, though the New Orleans City Council overturned Cantrell’s first termination attempt last month.

HANO officials have accused commissioner Sharon Jasper of neglecting her duties as a board member and misconduct in office by directing residents to voice complaints at board meetings instead of trying to resolve them administratively, and by denigrating the work of HANO’s board and staff and fostering hostility during those meetings.

Carol Johnson, the board’s president, called the request a “necessary decision” at a news conference Thursday (Dec. 8), accompanied by HANO’s executive director, Evette Hester, and two other commissioners. 

“We felt there was no other choice as Ms. Jasper’s behavior was becoming more extreme,” Johnson said Thursday. “We have to protect the staff of the housing authority to assure their safety.”

A spokesperson with the Mayor’s Office confirmed a new notice of removal had been sent out but declined to provide it to Verite News.

“This week’s renewed request speaks volumes and adds validity to the serious concerns raised by HANO, its employees and the Board itself and should not be ignored,” Cantrell’s Press Secretary John Lawson said in a written statement. 

Jasper was first appointed to one of two tenant representative seats on the board by Cantrell in 2018. But the behavior alleged by HANO didn’t begin until June of this year and has escalated since, Johnson said.

Those tensions peaked at the housing authority’s October meeting, during which HANO officials say board members and staff felt intimidated by the residents who showed up to speak. Those attendees  — residents HANO argues were recruited to appear by Jasper — often failed to follow proper procedures and didn’t address HANO staff in a professional manner, HANO officials said.

HANO staff members have not pointed to a specific legal or policy violation Jasper allegedly committed by encouraging residents to attend and speak at meetings. HANO board meetings are open to the public, and public attendees have the right, under state law, to address board members. 

Jasper and her supporters have said the administration is targeting Jasper for her zealous tenant advocacy. Jasper also serves as president of HANO’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Resident Council and has said she sees it as her job to advocate for residents of the city’s Section 8 program, which has more than 18,000 vouchers in use.

W.C. Johnson, who has acted as a representative for Jasper, including by presenting her case to the City Council last month, said Thursday that Jasper had tried repeatedly in recent months to bolster the board’s engagement with residents, attempting to get the board to hold meetings at public housing developments. 

W.C. Johnson added that the residents bringing their issues to board meetings often have previously tried and failed to get those problems resolved with HANO staff.

“HANO has no desire to interact with the residents of public housing,” W.C. Johnson said.

Removal request centers on October meeting

The Mayor’s Office first attempted to remove Jasper a day after the October meeting, leading Jasper to appeal the termination to the City Council. The council voted last month to reinstate her, finding that the Cantrell administration failed to follow procedural requirements set forth in state law that dictate how housing commissioners are notified of their removals. 

The statute also requires the mayor notify commissioners of the charges against them; per the law, housing authority commissioners can only be removed during their terms for “neglect of duty, misconduct in office, or conviction of any felony.” 

Cantrell’s first removal letter, sent one day after the October meeting, did not include any grounds for removal. A second letter, sent Nov. 17, accused her of “neglect of duty” and “misconduct in office” but did not elaborate on specific charges. At Jasper’s Nov. 29 appeal hearing, council members said that was inadequate. A deputy city attorney, providing legal guidance at the meeting, agreed. 

After determining that Cantrell did not follow the proper procedures for removal, council members declined to view HANO’s evidence, a video of the October meeting. After hearing a description of the video from Cantrell’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jabarie Walker, Councilman Eugene Green added that since it largely focused on angry behavior from members of the public, rather than specific violations by Jasper, it would likely be of little use to the administration’s case. 

In their renewed push for renewal, the bulk of the specific evidence shared by HANO officials so far in the claims against Jasper again center around the Oct. 25 meeting. 

A HANO police incident report, dated Nov. 30 — more than a month after that meeting and one day after Jasper’s appeal hearing — states that Jasper “appeared to incite” the behavior of the residents and at one point used a chain as a prop to discuss her own struggles and “egg on” other attendees. 

The report does acknowledge that Jasper appealed for calm later on in the meeting. 

Tenants “spoke with raised voices and ignored time limits,” per a letter to Cantrell signed by six of the eight other commissioners. HANO police officers eventually escorted one speaker who refused to leave the podium from the room and walked board members and staff to their cars after the meeting “to ensure their safety,” the letter read.

Jasper will seek a second appeal, W.C. Johnson said.

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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...