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Lack of Accountability the Norm for New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority under Executive Director Steve Horton

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Lack of Accountability the Norm for New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority under Executive Director Steve Horton

April 17, 2015 - 14:39
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Steve Horton at a 2014 NRMHA Board Meeting

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NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Steve Horton is a smart guy. He is well-educated, an effective manager of public meetings and has access to the legal brainpower of NRMHA Counsel Ira Goldenberg.

So how is that Horton is so tone-deaf when it comes to public accountability?

As a heuristic, if a public official is not open about open meetings and not free with freedom of information requests then they have something to hide. So, what does Steve Horton have to hide?

That remains to be seen because New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority under Horton’s leadership is about as transparent as one of the bricks that make up the facade of NRMHA properties.

Up until January 23, 2013 I had never had any dealings with Steve Horton or the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority or their attorney Ira Goldenberg. At at that time I was doing a series of stories about the failure of the City of New Rochelle to follow its own policy described in “Resolution 205” about the need to employ local workers on projects in New Rochelle that were funded by the City of New Rochelle. At issue was the Heritage Homes project which is a public-private partnership involving the NRMHA, built on NRMHA property and City property which was transferred to support the project.

I wished to review the Heritage Homes contract to better understand the deal for the project and, in particular the agreement between the NRMHA and the entity building Heritage Homes.

On January 23, 2013 I made a FOIL request for the Heritage Homes contract. I sought a copy of the Heritage Homes contract, including a request for an electronic copy of the document, if available. That request was REPEATEDLY ignored. I then made an appeal based on a constructive denial of my request to the "head of agency" as required under New York State law, that appeal went to Steve Horton on February 3, 2013. 

On February 6, I received an absurd email from Ira Goldenberg in which he purported to be confused as to what I meant by words like “developers,” “contract,” “Heritage Homes project” and requests dates for the documents I requested when I would have no way to know the dates since I do not have the documents.. The law merely requires that I “reasonably describe” the records which I did. Goldenberg was utilizing rather obvious stalling tactics attempting to block my access to the contract, a public record.

I responded in-kind by expanding my request to review ALL files and folders. To this day the NRMHA has never complied with any aspect of my augmented request.

Horton did finally agree to allow me to review the records in the NRMHA office.

Horton offered to allow me to come to the NRMHA office on February 21, 2013 which I did.

When I showed up for that appointment I was denied access to the office.

I left but followed up with Angelia Farrish, Steve Horton's assistant. I scheduled another appointment for February 28th. I returned to the NRMHA offices on that day.

Despite my more expansive request, I was provide only a set of records pursuant to my original request for the Heritage Homes contract.

I spent hours reading through hundreds of pages of records, scanning and searching for certain keywords. As I turned the last page I discovered a CD in the binder. That CD was covered under my original request.

I asked for a copy of the files on the CD. That request was denied. 

Under New York State law, there is no charge for electronic files like PDF files or Word Documents or photos or video. An agency can only charge if the files are too large to be emailed and need be placed on a CD or similar media. They can charge for labor costs if the time it takes to prepare the records exceeds 2 hours of actual labor (not a machine like a photocopier running for two hours).

I sent a follow up request for the electronic copy of the Heritage Homes contract and on March 5, 2013 received a reply from Farrish stating “We have made a copy (CD) of the closing documents in connection to the above project. Please note the cost for time, labor and materials to produce the CD is $60.00.”

At the time, the statutory rate for a CD was $6.00 (it has since been reduced to $2.00 or a CD) so this amounts to the NRMHA overcharging me 1,000%.

It was not (and still is not) clear how large these files were but a PDF for a 500 page document would typically be less than the standard file size attachment allowed by email services like Gmail.

When I asked for Farrish to clarify why the files could not be emailed she replied again on March 18, 2013 in which she stated:

“NRMHA does not have an agency employee with the skill to prepare a copy of the record you requested. Such tasks are performed for NRMHA by a professional engaged for such services. The cost of $60 was based upon the fee incurred by NRMHA to prepare the copy.”

The “skill” necessary to copy the records is to stick a CD into a computer and then drag and drop the files into an email or, if they are too large, to drag and drop them onto a thumb drive or drag and drop them into dropbox or to drag and drop the files onto a hard drive and then burn those files onto a CD.

According to this statement, the NRMHA does not employ a single person who knows how to operate the most basic functions of a personal computer, including Steve Horton. If this were true, it would raise serious questions about the hiring policies at NRMHA. Of course, it is quite obviously untrue. If the NRMHA is actually paying these sorts of fees to an outside vendor for such menial computing tasks it also raises serious questions about how they are spending taxpayer money.

The standard rate for a FOIL request in our area would be to charge an hourly rate for a clerk or about $15 per hour. That amount could be charged if it took more than 2 hours to copy the files. Copying files from a CD into an email takes about 30 seconds, tops.

To this day, I still do not have copies of those files.

I set the matter aside for a while with the intention of coming back to the failure of the NRMHA to follow New York State’s Sunshine Laws. Several months later I was contacted by supporters of a woman who was, allegedly, being denied housing improperly. A hearing was scheduled and I was asked to attend along with several other people including attorney Richard St. Paul. When we all showed up for the hearing, Ira Goldberg informed the group that only two people could attend the hearing because the room was too small (untrue, the room seats 12-15 people comfortably). St. Paul took Goldberg aside and after some discussion, Goldberg agreed to reschedule the meeting for a “larger” room. Several days later the NRMHA dropped their case and allowed the woman to remain as a tenant.

The incident, and Goldberg’s attempt to bluff his way into denying access to a hearing to people invited by the subject of the hearing, reminded me that I needed to turn more attention to the NRMHA.

As a result I attended several NRMHA board meetings, starting on June 9, 2014. I discovered that they were in gross violation of the open meeting laws. Their web site contained little useful information and what was there was often out of date. There was no information about the NRMHA board or contact information. There was (and still is) no information on how to make a Freedom of Information Law request as required under New York State law.

I wrote several articles which resulted in changes to the meetings so that the NRMHA began to get into compliance with New York State law. After one of the meetings last summer I met with the leadership of the NRMHA board, Elisa Singer and Rick Smith, who convinced me that they did want to make improvements in compliance with New York Sunshine Laws.

The NRMHA launched a new, slightly better, web site. It did contain a section to announce upcoming board meetings which up until then had been shrouded in mystery. It does not contain information for a Records Access Officer or any instructions with regard to FOIL as required by New York State law.

The set up at the meeting improved and documents used during the meeting were made available to members of the public who attended.

During the meeting on June 9, 2014, a copy of document entitled “Draft RFQ & Bracey Redevelopment” was circulated and discussed. Under New York State Open Meeting Laws that document was required to be published to the NRMHA web site and copies made available to the public at the meeting. None of this happened and subsequent requests for the document were ignored.

Who is Elisa Singer?

OPEN LETTER: New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority Violations of New York State Open Meeting Law

New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority Board Meeting: August 11, 2014

Over the past couple of months I have turned my attention back to the NRMHA. As part of that effort I have once again asked Steve Horton to turn over the Heritage Home electronic files that I requested in 2013 and the Bracey Redevelopment documents I requested in 2014. Once again, those requests have been completely ignored by Steve Horton.

I have advised Mr. Horton that I do not ever stop asking for public records and that I will continue to publish reports of violations of New York State Freedom of Information and Open Meeting Laws by the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority.

Readers can draw their own conclusions as to what sort of people run a public agency while thumbing their nose at laws meant to protect the public’s right to know how their money is being spent.

For me, I still stick with my belief that the level of corruption within an agency and among those who run it is directly correlated to the level of compliance with FOIL and OML.

That Steve Horton gets an “F” on compliance suggests he deserves an “F” on public integrity as well.

RELATED:

Journal News Article on New Rochelle Soul Food Restaurant Ignores Rather Obvious Questions

NEW ROCHELLE TO FEDS: Goal of Heritage Homes Project to Reduce Concentration of Black People

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Initial Exchange for FOIL on Hertiage Homes Contract

================= ================= ================= =================

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Subject: Freedom of Information Request -- Heritage Homes Contract

Date: January 23, 2013 5:40:52 PM EST

To: [email protected]

 

Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to obtain a copy of the contract involving the Municipal Housing Authority and the developers for the Heritage Homes project.

Does the NRMA have its own public records officer or are you under the authority of the City of New Rochelle.

If the former please consider this a public records request for the contract referenced above.

This is a public records request.

Where possible I would like records in electronic format.  If possible, I would like the electronic documents converted into standard Microsoft Office format (Word, Excel, etc.).  I would like all communications including the delivery of documents to take place via email as much as is possible based on the nature of the available records..  I would like the Records Access Officer to certify that the records are genuine.  If the documents only exist in paper form I am willing to pay.  If the cost of converting the documents to a standard electronic format or making photos copies exceeds $20.00 I would like prior notification of the estimated cost to comply with this records request.

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

================= ================= ================= =================

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Subject: SECOND TRY -- Freedom of Information Request -- Heritage Homes Contract

Date: January 30, 2013 2:02:14 PM EST

To: "[email protected]" <[email protected]>

 

I have confirmed with the City of New Rochelle that the New Rochelle  Municipal Housing Authority is a separate entity and that my FOIL request sent on 1/23 was properly directed to your agency.

I have tried calling your listed phone number and no one picks up and the voicemail box indicates it is "full".

I would appreciate a response.

Thanks

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

================= ================= ================= =================

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Subject: Fwd: SECOND TRY -- Freedom of Information Request -- Heritage Homes Contract

Date: February 3, 2013 at 6:54:37 PM EST

To: "Steven D. Horton" <[email protected]>

Mr. Horton,

This is an appeal to the constructive denial of my FOIL request.

I submitted a FOIL request on 1/23/13 have received no reply, as indicated below.

I wish to obtain a copy of the contract for Heritage Homes.

 

Thanks

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

================= ================= ================= =================

On Feb 6, 2013, at 11:40 AM, "Ira Goldenberg" <[email protected]> wrote:

Mr. Cox, this office is general counsel to the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority.  This is in response to your FOIL request of January 23, 2013, in which you seek, “a copy of the contract involving the Municipal Housing Authority and the developers for the Heritage Homes project.”

Please note that the Housing Authority was unaware of your request until Monday (2/4) as it was sent to the Housing Authority’s general mailbox.

 In any event, the Housing Authority will respond to your request when you  provide more particulars as to the documents that you are seeking.  Specifically, please define the terms “developers,” “contract,” “Heritage Homes project,” and the time period in which the documents that you seek are dated.

Please respond to our office.

Thank you,

 Ira S. Goldenberg, Esq.

Goldenberg & Selker, LLP

Attorneys at Law

================= ================= ================= =================

Subject: Re: FOIL request - New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Date: February 6, 2013 at 12:37:18 PM EST

To: "Ira Goldenberg" <[email protected]>

 

Mr. Goldberg,

Thank you for your reply.

In my original email of January 23, 2013, I was both looking to obtain records and seeking to determine whether NRMHA is, for FOIL purposes, under the purview of the City of New Rochelle or its own separate agency. From your email and discussions with City officials, I now understand the NRMHA to be a separate agency and that any FOIL requests should be directed to the NRMHA. I further understand that you are authorized to act as a Public Records Access Officer or Public Records Access Appeals Officer for the NRHMA and that I should communicate with you in this regard moving forward with my records request.

If this understanding is not entirely accurate please advise.

I did look carefully through the NRMHA web site. I could not see anywhere on the site that there was contact information for a Records Access Officer or any instructions with regard to FOIL. As you may know, this is required by New York State law.

It is for the reason described above that I sent my email to what you now describe as a "general mailbox". I am not clear why an email to that address, the one featured on the web site, would not be read for two weeks. I am also not clear why repeated phone calls to the NRMHA office in the middle of the business day would not be picked up nor why the voice mail system would indicate "full" and thus not allow me to leave a voice mail. More to the point, it is none of my concern that the NRMHA advertises an email address on its web site that it does not check for weeks at a time.

Regardless, you are acknowledging today receipt of my FOIL request on January 23, 2013.

The law requires a response within 5 business days. Today is February 6, 2013. For this reason, failing to reply within 5 days, that the NRMHA has constructively denied my request. For this reason I filed an appeal to the head of agency, Mr. Horton. He has 10 days to respond to my appeal. The clock is ticking on that appeal.

As for the description of my request,  I am not required to define terms like “developers,” “contract,” or “Heritage Homes project" in making a FOIL request. I am only required to reasonably describe the records I seek.  For a variety of reasons, I would expect the NRMHA would be familiar with The Heritage Homes project and that there is a developer involved and that the work is being done under a contract. Therefore, I believe that I have reasonably described the records I seek.

However, as it sounds like these terms might still be causing the NRMHA some confusion and there has apparently been no effort to fulfill my request, and you seem to be the person I need to communicate with and do, apparently check emails and receive phone calls, I would like to give the NRMHA an opportunity to get back on track here with regards to my request from last month.

Please amend my request to read as follows.

I would like to INSPECT all files and folders pertaining to The Heritage Homes project.

By "The Heritage Homes Project" I am referring to the affordable housing development described at this web address: http://www.heritagehomesnr.com

Please note the web page describes this as an initiative of the NRMHA, the NRMHA logo is on the page along with contact information for the NRMHA including the email address the NRMHA does not check and the phone number they do not answer when called during the business day. I trust that is clear enough on what I mean by The Heritage Homes Project.

By "all files and folders" I mean every public record, every single piece of paper, every electronic record, email, email attachment, every cocktail napkin or matchbook cover or any other document or record that references, in any way, The Heritage Homes project or any previous name or incarnation of what has come to be known as "Heritage Homes". I trust I am being clear on that as well.

Please advise when the NRMHA would like to set up a time during regular business hours for me to inspect the records I seek.

Once I have inspected all of the records described above I should be able to inform you of the contract that matches my original request.

Thank you.

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

================= ================= ================= =================

On Feb 14, 2013, at 1:35 PM, Angela Farrish <[email protected]> wrote:

Mr. Cox

Please see attached document in connection to the above request.

Hard Copy to follow in the mail.

-- 

Angela Davis-Farrish

Office of Mr. Steven D. Horton

New Rochelle Housing Authority

================= ================= ================= =================

[letter sent as attached PDF file reference above]

February 13, 2013

Mr. Robert Cox

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

 

STEVEN D. HORTON

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

 

IRA GOLDENBERG

COUNSEL

 

Email: [email protected]

[email protected]

 

RE: FOIL Request

Dear Mr. Cox:

Thank you for your request for "a copy of the contract involving the Municipal Housing Authority and the developers of the Heritage Homes project." In your email of February 6, 2013, you expanded your request by stating that you want to ”INSPECT all files and folders pertaining to The Heritage Homes project." You further state that you wish to "set up a time during regular business hours for me to inspect the records I seek."

Accordingly, please contact Angela Farrish, our newly appointed FOIL officer, to arrange for a time during regular business hours in which you may inspect the files of the RMHA that pertain to the Heritage Homes project. You may contact Ms. Farrish at 914-636-7050 x201, or by email at Angela Farrish ([email protected]).

Finally, I would like to clarify Ira Goldenberg's role in responding to your FOIL request. He is our general counsel and not our FOIL officer. Due to personnel shifts, we were temporarily without a FOIL officer, so he responded to your inquiry to expedite your request. Since then, however, the NRMHA has appointed Ms. Farrish as the FOIL officer so that all inquiries should be directed to her.

Steven D. Horton

Executive Director

SDH/adf

================= ================= ================= =================

On 2/18/2013 5:11 PM, Robert Cox wrote:

Angela,

Would this Friday to review Heritage Home records work for you?  How about in the morning? 10 AM?

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

================= ================= ================= =================

On 2/21/2013 12:22 PM, Robert Cox wrote:

As you learned, I did stop by today. Can we try again?

I am available Wed or Thurs after 3 PM. Will that work?

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

================= ================= ================= =================

On Feb 21, 2013, at 2:20 PM, Steve D Horton <[email protected]> wrote:

Mr. Cox:  Ms. Farrish is out for the balance of the week.  You may visit us today after three - and before 4:30.  Otherwise please make arrangements with Ms. Farrish when she returns on Monday 25 February.  Please indicate a phone number where she may reach you so that we may confirm as soon as possible.  Thank you.   SDH

================= ================= ================= =================

On 2/21/2013 2:31 PM, Robert Cox wrote:

Mr. Horton,

As indicated below, next week is fine. Either Wed or Thurs after 3 PM.

I can be reached at 914-325-4616.

Thank you,

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

================= ================= ================= =================

On Feb 25, 2013, at 1:09 PM, Angela Farrish <[email protected]> wrote:

Confirming Thursday, February 28th at 3:00 PM

================= ================= ================= =================

From: Robert Cox <[email protected]>

Subject: Re: NRMHA - FOIL Request Response

Date: February 25, 2013 at 1:29:40 PM EST

To: Angela Farrish <[email protected]>

 

See you then.

Bob

================= ================= ================= =================

On Mar 5, 2013, at 4:38 PM, Robert Cox <[email protected]> wrote:

Angela,

Thanks so much for getting back to me. I realize you were only newly appointed to the position of Records Access Officer so some confusion about FOIL requirements is understandable.

One thing you should know is that FOIL requests can be submitted via email if the agency has email and, if this is the case, replies MUST be sent via email and records available in electronic form must be sent as email attachments, at no charge, if possible. That is the case with the NRMHA.

When we last spoke I had inquired as to whether there was an electronic version of the documents provided to me per my FOIL request regarding Heritage Homes. Electronic records were covered under my request.

You located what appeared to be a CD but there was no information as to the contents of the CD.

You gave the CD to your tech person who was asked to determine what sort of files were on the CD (PDF, Word, etc.), the size of the files and whether they were relevant to my FOIL request.

I had requested that if they were determined to be relevant to my FOIL request then the files would be emailed to me. In the case there would be no charge under the law.

I would agree that if for some reason, such as file size, it is not possible to email the files then copying them onto a CD is an acceptable alternative. In that case, I can be charged the cost of the CD at a rate of $6.00 per CD and related labor costs if the work exceeds 2 hours. The rate I can be charged for labor is the hourly wage of the lowest paid employee capable of doing the work.

Being familiar with computers, I cannot envision a scenario where it would take more than 2 hours to make a copy of a CD so the figure of $60 strikes me as unjustified.

The question right now is how many files are on the CD and what size are those files. From that it can be determined whether the files could be sent as email attachments as I had requested. If that is the case, the files should be sent to me and there should be no charge at all. If the files are exceptionally large and could not be transmitted as email attachments I am willing to pay the statutory rate of $6.00 for the CD.

 

Thank you.

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

================= ================= ================= =================

On Mar 5, 2013, at 4:12 PM, Angela Farrish <[email protected]> wrote:

As per your request, we have made a copy (CD) of the closing documents in connection to the above project.  Please note the cost for time, labor and materials to produce the CD is $60.00.

Please let me know when you are able to pick up the CD or if you have any questions.

Thank you.

-- 

Angela Davis-Farrish

Office of Mr. Steven D. Horton

New Rochelle Housing Authority

================= ================= ================= =================

On 3/14/2013 10:34 AM, Robert Cox wrote:

Angela,

My patience is nearing an end.

It has been more than a week since this latest exchange. This is not terribly complicated so I fail to understand the delay.

Can the files on the CD be emailed? If not, I will accept a copy of the CD at the statutory rate of $6.00.

I would like a response today please - either email me the records today or make the CD available at the correct rate today.

This latest delay is part of many weeks of delay some of it almost comical.

The New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority has already been in violation of FOIL several times, the agency up until a few weeks ago did not have a Records Access Officer as required by law, you do not publish instructions on how to make FOIL requests on your web site as required by law, you failed to provide these electronic records previously, records which were covered under my request, you required me to come to your offices unnecessarily to view the files (twice, because the first time no one was there to receive me during normal business hours despite your having proposed a specific day).

Please understand that the above will form a part of an Article 78 proceeding should you fail to respond promptly. I expect a judge will be less than amused.

Should I not get a prompt reply, the next email you receive on this matter will be from an attorney informing you of my intent to proceed with the Article 78 complaint against the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority.

I will also run a series of articles recounting the conduct of your agency with regard to public records including the email exchanges that have occurred and an apparent effort to withhold information about the Heritage Homes project.

Let's see if we can work together to avoid any unpleasantness.

Thank you.

Robert Cox

Managing Editor

New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound

http://www.newrochelletalk.com

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