Photo by Martin Owen
The Housing Authority's Autumn Park apartment complex.
Photo by George Lauby
An Housing Authority home in a residential neighborhood.
Chris Holley says he only did what is right – called police to report the whereabouts of a potential resident -- a man who was wanted for sexual assault of a child.But Holley, a long-time maintenance supervisor at the North Platte Housing Authority, said he’s been unjustly fired because he did.
As the Bulletni reported Wednesday in our print edition, Holley claims his phone call to police upset Housing Authority Director Janis D. Bennett so much that she got rid of him.
Holley said Bennett, also known as JD Bennett, would not report the man to authorities.
Holley’s complaint about the operation of the Housing Authority is not the first to arrive at the Bulletin. Other North Platte residents have contacted us in recent days.
Their complaints include: improper paycheck calculations, firing of key employees, low occupancy rates, unpaid utility credits, incomplete financial records and a computerized record keeping system that doesn’t work.
Dan Mauk, the chairman of the board of directors, said Feb. 11 that the board began investigating the complaints on Jan. 28.
Mauk said the board “is fully aware of the issues.”
“There is of course another side of the story,” he said.
Mauk also said the board “has no issues with the background checks. The policy is clearly defined by HUD regulations,” although he didn’t specify what the regulations say.
The Bulletin called the HUD headquarters in Kansas City Thursday, without success. Their automated phones did not work.
After listening to a lengthy voice menu of options, we were told to press 2 for the public affairs department. When we did, we were told that selection is invalid.
We waited 20 minutes, then tried again, with the same result. We also tried pressing other numbers, such as 3 for a list of employees. We even tried pressing 1 to listen to the instructions in Spanish. We always got the same response – “that selection is invalid.”
The North Platte Housing Authority has 150 small houses scattered throughout North Platte. Most are brick houses with one- or two-bedrooms, plus a handful of three-bedroom units. Residents qualify to live there if their incomes are low and they need a place to live.
Nearly all of those houses were built in the 1960s during a federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) project.
In addition, the Housing Authority owns and operates 100 apartment units in the Autumn Park complex, near Philip and Eastman.
Holley worked for the housing authority for 12 years. He told the Bulletin he was recently officially named the maintenance supervisor of Autumn Park after directing employees and handling purchasing for the maintenance department for several years.
Mauk declined to comment on Holley’s assertion that he was wrongly fired. But he said that the possibility, as well as other issues, are under investigation.
In the course of commenting on some other specific complaints, Mauk said that Bennett “saw the maintenance staff driving some 2,000 miles a month, with poor control of time, repair and parts inventory.”
Holley said an active warrant for sex assault of a child turned up during a background check of a man who applied for housing.
Staff member Laurie Richman Demilt conducted the background check and found the warrant, according to Holley.
Demilt has worked for the housing authority for three years.
He said when Demilt took the information to Bennett, instead of reporting it to police, Bennett ordered Demilt to “shred it.”
Holley said he got a call from a dismayed Demilt, who told him what happened. Holley said they were both concerned.
“We both have children. Most of our residents are single moms with children,” he said, so they decided to call the police.
Holley said he told the board of directors about the situation at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting. Follow-up discussions were held during the next two days, during which Bennett told him that he’d violated procedures. She said she would have been the one to report the man to authorities, not Holley or Demilt. However, Bennett said HUD rules don’t allow her to report such information directly to the police, only to HUD.
She told Holley that he could be fired and/or fined for calling the police directly.
According to Holley, Bennett was ready to fire him that day, Jan. 29, but he appealed to Mauk, who intervened, saving his job at least for a few days.
When Holley and Richman were fired on Feb. 11, Holley said Bennett told them that they were “at-will” employees, a contractual term meaning an employee can be dismissed for any reason, without warning, under general employment agreements.
Indignant, Holley notified the news media. He arranged an on-camera television interview.
“JD Bennett can stand at her position and I'll stand at mine,” he said.
Holley also said that veteran administrative aide and program director Mitzi Kramer was fired recently, compounding the problems associated with new procedures.
Kramer worked in the office for 12.5 years.
Both Holley and Kramer said that Bennett sometimes failed to follow her own policies. Kramer would question the director about that, and eventually got fired, Kramer said.
Holley said “if you’re doing right in reporting something and you get fined or fired for it -- what is this leading to, what kind of world are we living in?”
He believes that Bennett could have reported the active warrant to police, “but for some reason she didn’t want to.”
Bennett did not reply to a request for comment.
She was hired in April, taking over from Ed Greenwood, who retired.
For more aspects of this situation and the most complete coverage to date of this story, pick up a copy of the Bulletin's Feb. 12 print edition this week, on sale now at convenience and grocery stores all over Lincoln County.