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Housing board election chaos

December 16, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Last week, Bettie Cook, a longtime activist who typically takes the city’s public housing commission members to task from the sidelines, sat among them for the first time.

Cook, 75, is the new tenant commission member and will help oversee personnel, approve budgets and make other big decisions affecting herself and the 11,999 other people living in Park City Communities — the rebranded Bridgeport Housing Authority — developments and scattered apartments.

Unlike the other mayoral-appointed commission members, the tenant representative is elected by other residents. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.

But the citywide election between Cook and two other candidates, Daisy Nunez and Wendelyn Narvaez, was canceled over outside political interference and disagreements about voting sites and the use of absentee or mail-in ballots.

And the local League of Women Voters, which had volunteered to oversee the process, decided not to stay involved.

“We were not comfortable about that (decision),” said Jean Rabinow, a league member. “But I didn’t see — and my steering committee did not see — that we had much choice.”

So Cook was voted in by Park City Communities’ Resident Advisory Board, of which she is not only a member but the president.

“It was unanimous by the board. They all voted me in,” Cook recalled, adding she was not part of the decision by her fellow advisory board members, themselves elected by residents, to take that step.

“They said they wanted somebody with experience,” Cook said. “It is what it is. I had nothing to do with the election.”

But Narvaez wants a do-over.

“We were supposed to have an election,” she said. “We were supposed to be elected by the residents, not just the Resident Advisory Board. Do the right thing — have everybody vote.”

Absentee ballot issues

For years, the tenant representative on the public housing commission was also appointed by the mayor. Then the state General Assembly, at the request of some Bridgeport legislators, approved a requirement that the tenant member be elected by residents.

Park City Communities held the first election in 2015, and Hadassah Nightingale won. She recently decided to retire, prompting the need for a new election to fill the vacancy on the commission. And the League of Women Voters, which oversaw the 2015 election and Resident Advisory Board races in Bridgeport, agreed to again be involved.

Rabinow, however, said because of a lack of league staff and low turnout in prior elections, the decision was made to only have polls at two public housing properties — Harborview Towers and Trumbull Gardens — and provide absentee ballots to residents who could not travel to those sites. None of the three candidates lives in Harborview or Trumbull Gardens.

Cowlis Andrews, the housing commission’s chairman, said in an interview that he opposed that plan.

“I got complaints from several residents about absentee ballots — and Bridgeport has a history with absentee ballots,” Andrews said, referring to prior scandals in Bridgeport politics over the mishandling or abuse of mail-in votes.

Andrews said he was also concerned because some local politicians had decided to campaign for some of the commission candidates to, he said he believes, have greater influence over Park City Communities. For example, Councilman Alfredo Castillo, an ex-housing authority employee and a council liaison to the public housing commission, was known to have supported Narvaez. Castillo could not be reached for comment.

Andrews wanted polls open at all of Park City’s developments, but staggered on different days to accommodate the League of Women Voters’ staffing limitations. And absentee ballots would only be allowed if “someone could show a doctor’s note” they were unable to participate in the election otherwise, Andrews said.

Rabinow said the league was not comfortable with those options, particularly limiting or eliminating absentee ballots, arguing that mail-in ballots are legally required under state law and could be the only way some tenants had to vote.

Andrews said “state statute does not call for absentee ballots. And it is not a municipal election, it’s a tenant election.”

A new face versus experience

Narvaez said limiting the polls to Harborview and Trumbull Gardens and doing away with absentee ballots shut out her supporters.

“How are my people going to vote for me if they can’t make it — if they don’t have rides and no way of getting around?” she said.

Narvaez said housing officials like Andrews should have stayed out of the decision-making process and left the league alone.

“The board is neutral. We didn’t care who won,” Andrews said. “But I could not let them do absentee ballots. It just wasn’t fair.”

Karen Bracey, a Trumbull Gardens resident who supported Cook, called the entire situation “ridiculous,” with “everybody getting involved and giving Jean a call and just harassing her about when this or that can happen.”

Bracey said Narvaez “didn’t know anything” and would have been a “foolish” choice for tenant commission member.

Narvaez said she would be a fresh voice for public housing residents, in contrast to Cook’s years of advocacy.

“Tenants here are still having the same issues,” Narvaez said. “Why elect her if the issues are still going?”

Cook said she will keep working hard for her fellow residents as a new housing commission member.

“I want to see everything go smooth for the tenants, see them get their apartments fixed up like they’re supposed to, and Band-Aids stopped being put on things,” Cook said.

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