Ahearn-Koch objects to naming of affordable housing developer to Sarasota Housing Authority board

Mayor Arroyo names Mark Vengroff of One Stop Housing and former City and County Commissioner Carolyn Mason to open seats

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch. File image

Voicing concerns about loss of institutional knowledge and a potential conflict-of-interest situation, Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the solitary “No” vote this week on the two nominations that Mayor Erik Arroyo made to the Sarasota Housing Authority Board of Directors.

Having served as the commission’s liaison to that board over the past 18 months, Ahearn-Koch talked of the expertise of the two members whose terms were expiring: Valerie Buchand and David Morgan.

Although both had applied for re-appointments, Arroyo explained that, after conducting in-depth discussions with them and the two other applicants, he felt the latter persons should have the opportunity to serve on the board. The new board members are former Sarasota Mayor and County Commissioner Carolyn Mason and Mark Vengroff, a developer of affordable homes. Vengroff is the managing partner of One Stop Housing, which was founded by his late father, Harvey Vengroff, the website says.

At the outset of the discussion of the July 18 agenda item, Arroyo said that he had found all the applicants to be “very impressive and very knowledgeable about the issues.” He added, “I talked to them about their priorities moving forward and their thoughts about housing” and actions they have taken.

He also pointed out that he had given the appointments much consideration.

Noting that Buchand had been on the board since 2008, and Morgan’s original appointment was in 2012, Arroyo told his colleagues, “We have not had new blood, new thoughts, new ideas flourishing from that [Housing Authority] board [for some time].”

The members serve four-year terms, according to materials included in the July 18 agenda packet.

At one point during the discussion, Commissioner Hagen Brody asked why other commissioners should have any say about Arroyo’s choices. “Procedurally,” Brody said, “I thought this was the mayor’s appointment alone.”

City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs reminded Brody that although the mayor had the authority to make the nominations, the other members of the City Commission needed to confirm them.

Then City Attorney Robert Fournier read from the applicable statute, noting that the mayor needs “the approval of the governing body.”

“OK,” Brody responded.

Fournier added that if the mayor could not get a commission majority to support the applicants the mayor had chosen, then the mayor would have to propose someone else.

“OK,” Brody replied again.

The Housing Authority and applicants’ qualifications

This is the homepage banner of the Sarasota Housing Authority. Image from the website

As its website explains, the Sarasota Housing Authority [SHA] “is committed to providing quality affordable housing to enhance the lives of our residents and promote their independence. Our professional team members provide housing assistance to over 2,000 low-income families in Sarasota. In addition to affordable housing, SHA endeavors to help our families access appropriate services to improve their lives and are an award-winning industry leader in early childhood education.”

David Morgan. Image from his Facebook campaign page when he ran for City Commission in 2015

In his application for re-appointment, Morgan wrote that he has more than 20 years of experience in consulting and training housing authority staff members. He added that he has expertise in “strategic planning, development, homeownership, operations and [U.S. Housing and Urban Development] programs.”

He also noted that he is a member of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the Public Housing Directors Association and the Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

“I have worked with agencies and municipalities in 49 states,” Morgan pointed out on his application, adding that his experiences allow him “to bring best practices, policies and new ideas to the [Sarasota Housing Authority].”

In her application, Buchand wrote that she is a member of the City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA), the Commission on the Status of Women, and the Newtown Nation, among other organizations.

The reason she wished to continue serving on the Housing Authority Board, she wrote, is “To bring balance to the table. … As we develop more and more affordable housing we need to ensure that all people are served and at the table. The health of our city depends on the balance of housing as well as income levels.”

Mason noted in her application that she is a native of Sarasota and a former public housing resident. “I have a desire to help the housing authority and the residents of the City of Sarasota to continue to close the gap in the provision of true affordable and workforce housing for those who need it in the community,” she wrote. “I feel my experience can go a long way in helping to get there from where we are currently.”

Mark Vengroff. Image from the Florida Incubator website

In his application, Vengroff noted that, before joining the One Stop Housing firm in Sarasota, he was CEO of Walker Advertising, which “is the largest legal advertising agency in the country that helps legal firms market and grow their practice.”

Additionally, in April 2016, his application says, he founded a medical lien finance company called WestStar Group. “Over a three-year period, as CEO, Mark set up five personal injury provider networks located in Florida and Colorado called … MeritBridge. [They] provided underinsured and uninsured accident victims with the ability to gain access to quality medical treatment,” the application explains.

Vengroff is a member of the boards of directors of the Florida Incubator, WebCollect, and RJE International, the application also points out.

Back at the dais

After Arroyo offered his nominations on July 18, Ahearn-Koch told him, “I would advocate that you reconsider.”

She told her colleagues that Buchand, “is uniquely qualified for [serving on the Housing Authority board], and her participation and what she has to add to the meetings and to the board is invaluable in my opinion.”

Ahearn-Koch provided a comparable commendation for Morgan.

Both of them, Ahearn-Koch continued, “are really valued members of that board …”

Arroyo replied that he understood her position. “I asked a lot of questions regarding this appointment. They are both invaluable to this community,” he said of Buchand and Morgan.

Buchand “will continue to be involved [in city issues],” Arroyo added.

Morgan also “is uniquely qualified,” Arroyo said. “He’s amazing.”

Mason has been applying for a position on the Housing Authority board for years, Arroyo pointed out. Moreover, he noted, the City Commission is not a governing body “that makes lifetime appointments. There should be opportunities for every member of this community [to serve on such boards].”

Then he stressed, “It was a very tough decision.”

When Ahearn-Koch asked him what qualifications he considered, Arroyo replied that Mason “has been an advocate for decades, and she serves on the Harvest House board. She also works with providers of social services in the community, he indicated. Further, Mason “knows that system of housing,” Arroyo added.

This is part of the website banner for Harvest House. Image from the website

As for Vengroff: Arroyo noted that his father was the late Harvey Vengroff, who “was so great to this community. He provided … thousands of affordable units. He was a very philanthropic person.”

Affordable housing, Arroyo continued, is the Vengroffs’ business. “They understand the issues intimately, more than most, and when it comes to driving policy, I believe that’s a very important thing.”

This is information from the One Stop Housing website.

Ahearn-Koch responded that she had “no disagreement … at all” with Arroyo’s selection of Mason. “She and Ms. Buchand both have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge about our city … They’re both fabulous candidates.”

However, she continued, “I’m concerned about Mr. Vengroff.” Ahearn-Koch noted Arroyo’s statement about affordable housing being Vengroff’s business; therefore, she said, potentially, conflict-of-interest situations could arise.

“I see where that conclusion could be arrived at,” Arroyo replied. Nonetheless, he said, “It shouldn’t be a conflict because there is such a dire need for affordable housing. … [Vengroff] understands the entire business of building and developing policies around different municipalities and regions to address this need.”

Arroyo added that he “would really like” Ahearn-Koch’s support for both of his nominations.

Vice Mayor Kyle Battie. News Leader image

Vice Mayor Kyle Battie suggested that Morgan could be a better resource to the Housing Authority board members by not serving as one of them. Battie was referencing the state’s Sunshine Laws, he said. They prevent people appointed to local government boards from discussing issues with each other except during meetings.

“I support your appointments,” Battie told Arroyo.

Commissioner Brody made the motion to confirm Arroyo’s choices, and Battie seconded it.

“All of the applicants are fantastic,” Brody said. “I think they all bring a little something different to the board.”

However, he continued, “I was moved by the mayor’s comments” about the fact that both Buchand and Morgan had been on the Housing Authority board for a long time.

“I do believe in new blood,” Brody said.

Adding that he thinks Morgan has broad understanding of the issues, Brody said he agreed with Battie’s comment that Morgan could be more effective as an outside resource for all of the board members.

Further, Brody told his colleagues, “I think Vengroff does bring a different set of skills and experience to the table. He’s obviously well-versed in the private sector’s affordable housing challenges, and I think that experience is something we don’t have on the board currently. … I wasn’t expecting his nomination, but thrilled to see him apply.”

During a County Commission candidates’ forum conducted the following evening on Siesta Key, former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd “Glossie” Atkins, who is one of two individuals vying with Brody for the Democratic nomination for the District 2 seat this year, raised the Housing Authority appointments in responding to a question from the moderator.

Aktins pointed out that Vengroff had given Brody $7,000 for Brody’s campaign, using various business entities that Vengroff controls. The limit for campaign contributions is $1,000.