The New Orleans City Council reinstated Housing Authority of New Orleans Commissioner Sharon Jasper to the agency’s governing board on Wednesday (March 8), rejecting a second effort by the agency’s leadership and Mayor LaToya Cantrell to terminate her

Following a contentious hearing appealing the termination, the seven council members voted unanimously to reinstate Jasper, one of two legally mandated tenant representatives on the HANO board. Jasper has said the agency’s leadership targeted her for her zealous tenant advocacy.

“I’ve been on this battlefield for many years, fighting to be treated like a human being,” Jasper said after the appeal hearing.

In their rebuke of leadership at the housing authority, which oversees programs that house more than 20,000 low-income New Orleanians, council members raised two potential legal issues they argued HANO has overlooked in their months-long quest to dismiss Jasper. They noted the board’s failure to file annual reports with the city, as state law requires, and Cantrell’s 2022 appointment of New Orleans Police Department Officer Jeffrey Vappie, a former member of Cantrell’s security detail, to the HANO board, which may violate the city’s charter because Vappie is a city employee.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, at the request of HANO leadership, attempted to remove Jasper in December after the council rejected a first effort the prior month, citing procedural blunders in a heated, hours-long hearing. Jasper appealed the second termination, placing the issue in the council’s hands once more to assess at Wednesday’s hearing whether she could be removed. Under state law, housing authority commissioners can only be terminated for cause

Representatives from HANO claimed on Wednesday — as they did in the previous appeal hearing — that Jasper failed to perform her duties as a board member, arguing that Jasper’s attendance at meetings was spotty, that she failed to prepare for meetings by reading all the documents beforehand, and that she invited the agency’s clients to board meetings to resolve their issues instead of connecting residents to staff.

The “breaking point,” as HANO’s board president Carol Johnson put it, was the board’s heated Oct. 2022 meeting, where agency officials said Jasper invited members of the public to derail the meeting and used a steel-linked chain as a prop to incite her supporters against the board. The events of that meeting have served as the bulk of the evidence in HANO’s attempts to terminate Jasper.

“This set off a firestorm,” said Evette Hester, the agency’s executive director. “You had to be there to understand it. If you saw the Jan. 6 insurrectionists [at the U.S. Capitol], it was similar to that.” 

But council members picked apart the housing authority’s arguments, criticizing the comparison of a disruptive board meeting to a deadly attack on the Capitol for being tone-deaf and inaccurate. 

New Orleans residents have a right to be frustrated with city leadership and with HANO, Councilman JP Morrell said, pointing out that the City Council itself often has meetings as contentious as HANO’s.

“Part of public service is that by offering yourself up or putting yourself in the public’s eye, you also invite their ire,” Morrell said. “That’s part of the job.”

Morrell faulted HANO for failing to give Jasper advance notice so she could defend herself against accusations of poor attendance. He also noted that the board and staff’s dislike of Jasper over her behavior was not legal grounds for removal. And HANO leadership failed to hand over documentation proving their claims, such as attendance records for Jasper and other commissioners, Councilman Joe Giarrusso said.

Councilwoman Helena Moreno pointed out that had the agency submitted regular annual reports to the city, as mandated in state law, there might have been more documentation to substantiate some of its claims.

Of eight HANO meetings in 2022 for which meeting minutes were available on the agency’s website, Jasper was marked absent for only one. Four other commissioners, including Vappie, missed two meetings during the same period, according to the minutes.  

Morrell also alleged HANO was targeting Jasper while ignoring a potential conflict of another board member, citing a portion of the city charter that appears to prohibit city employees from serving on local government boards, stating that any board member “who shall accept an appointive office or position of public employment for which compensation is paid by the city shall forfeit membership on the board.”

He appeared to be referencing Vappie, the New Orleans Police Department officer assigned to Cantrell’s security detail who is now under an internal investigation over payroll and timesheet issues. Cantrell appointed Vappie to the HANO board last spring.

HANO officials said in brief remarks after the hearing that they were disappointed in the council’s decision but would respect it and move forward, a sentiment echoed in a statement released by Cantrell. Johnson, the board’s president, declined to comment to Verite on the potential legal issues raised by councilmembers during the hearing.

Jasper was first appointed to the board by Cantrell in 2018, and her current term expires in about four months, HANO confirmed to council Wednesday.

‘I have been fighting hard for the residents of this city’

Herself a public housing tenant for decades, Jasper has also served as president of HANO’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Resident Council. Often called Section 8, the program provides low-income clients with federally funded assistance to find homes in the private housing market. Jasper, who is also known for her outspoken criticism against the decision to demolish the city’s public housing projects, has identified herself as a fierce advocate for affordable housing residents. 

On Wednesday, on the steps of City Hall after the hearing, Jasper celebrated with a small crowd of supporters. They began an impromptu rendition of the song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”

“I have been fighting hard for the residents of this city,” Jasper said earlier Wednesday. “For me to hear them say the things that they’re saying about me? It’s hard.”

The dispute between Jasper and various board members and staff of the housing agency has underscored the obstacles faced by Section 8 clients in the city’s tight housing market. HANO clients and affordable housing advocates have noted such tenants face discrimination from landlords and can get caught in the cogs of bureaucracy at the housing authority.

Speaking before the council in support of Jasper, Nedra Poindexter said she struggled to obtain a copy of her Section 8 voucher from HANO staff while living in her car with her teenage son. She said it was only after a friend connected her to Jasper that she gained access to the voucher so she could find a new home. The tension between tenants and the housing authority often stems from the exhaustion of clients who are homeless or on the brink of losing their housing, she told the council.

“By the time we get to Ms. Jasper, we are exhausted,” Poindexter said. “Thanks to Ms. Jasper, I’ve been placed in a home. I signed the lease on March 1, something that I had tried to do since September. And you’re saying she’s the problem? She’s not.”

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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...