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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    New London housing director out, interim named

    Sue Shontell sits in her office at the New London Housing Authority on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London — Executive Director Sue Shontell abruptly left her job with the New London Housing Authority on Tuesday in circumstances that are under dispute.

    Shontell said she was notified on Monday that she was being fired — calling it a political move and “not based on performance.”

    However, Housing Authority board of commissioners Chairwoman Betsy Gibson announced Tuesday that Shontell’s termination was accomplished by “mutual agreement,” with terms to be hashed out.

    Either way, Shontell's last day with the authority was Tuesday.

    The board wasted no time filling the vacancy. On Tuesday evening the board named Lee C. Erdmann, the former chief operating officer and city manager of Hartford, as the interim executive director. Erdmann, who also is the former chief administrator and financial officer for the city of Springfield, Mass., most recently worked as the acting town manager in Enfield.

    Mayor Michael Passero said Erdmann will start Wednesday and work through Jan. 6, during which time the board could decide to change direction and partner with another housing authority, hire a professional management agency or start a search for a new executive director.

    Passero expressed confidence in the abilities of Erdmann, who is stepping in during a time of turmoil for the Housing Authority. The agency is in the midst of trying to comply with a court order mandating new homes for the 124 families living at the troubled Thames River Apartments on Crystal Avenue.

    The move to replace Shontell also comes amid an overhaul of board members, continuing controversy over conditions at Thames River Apartments and a filing by Shontell of a discrimination complaint with the state claiming harassment and interference by the mayor and board members. The complaint is pending with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

    Shontell said she received a call Monday evening from Eileen Duggan, the employment attorney for the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners, who told her the board had “reached a consensus” to terminate her contract with the authority. Shontell disputes there is an agreement in place and said she had been asked to resign but declined.

    The board held a special meeting on Monday where the only agenda item was an executive session, or closed-door discussion, for a “pending legal claim.” The board did not vote on any action.

    Board member Kathleen Mitchell declined to discuss the specifics of Monday’s executive session but said she was “very uncomfortable with the results of last night’s meeting.” Mitchell also abruptly left an executive session during Tuesday’s board meeting where the discussion, which involved Mayor Michael Passero, was focused on Shontell’s replacement.

    The vote to name Erdmann as interim director was unanimous by the three board members present — Gibson, Jeanette Parker and Shannon Heap.

    Shontell has worked for the Housing Authority since 2003 and was named the interim executive director in 2009 to succeed former Director Joseph Abrams, who resigned amid accusations of fiscal mismanagement. She was hired as executive director in 2010 with a $75,000 annual salary.

    Shontell oversees management of 433 units in five subsidized housing complexes — a mix of elderly, disabled and working poor.

    When Abrams left, the Housing Authority had been on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s list of troubled agencies for a decade and was under investigation for not properly administering federal funds, among other allegations.

    A class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents at Thames River Apartments claiming inhumane living conditions still was pending.

    The Housing Authority was upgraded to “substandard'' in financial indicators in 2012 and later to “standard” under Shontell's direction. The class-action lawsuit ended with a stipulated court agreement in 2014 that requires new housing for the residents at the Crystal Avenue high-rises.

    Shontell had come under fire recently when HUD again downgraded the Housing Authority's status to “substandard” based on perceived financial irregularities and because of physical conditions at the two federally subsidized properties — Thames River Apartments and Williams Park Apartments.

    The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last week rejected a zone change amendment that would have aided a proposed affordable-housing development to replace the Crystal Avenue high-rises and would have satisfied the court agreement.

    The board, under increasing pressure from Crystal Avenue residents and heightened concern over a major crisis at the high-rises, recently voted to apply to HUD for mobile housing vouchers — a quicker alternate route to the promised replacement housing. Shontell essentially was sidelined from the process and from other recent decisions.

    Shontell said she did not yet have an attorney and could not comment on whether she would challenge what she called her termination. She has a three-year contract with the Housing Authority in which an additional year is added each year following a performance evaluation from the board.

    The status of that contract is likely moot since it contains a provision that gives the board the ability to terminate the agreement “without penalty or cause” with 30 days' advance written notice.

    “They don’t have to have a reason,” Shontell acknowledged.

    g.smith@theday.com 

    Sue Shontell sits in her office at the New London Housing Authority on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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