Homestead - South Dade

Homestead’s embattled housing director is fired

After two tumultuous, last-minute meetings on Friday and Tuesday, the embattled Homestead Housing Authority has a new executive director.

HHA commissioners abruptly fired Oscar Hentschel by a 4-1 vote Friday. On Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously voted to name Shane White, the HHA’s Section 8 program supervisor, as interim executive director.

Commissioner Michael Goodman, who requested the agenda item to dismiss Hentschel, said at the Friday night meeting that this was “no personal or professional indictment of Oscar,” but the result of “a fresh new wind” at the authority instigated when Mayor Jeff Porter in June removed every Steve Bateman appointee to the HHA Board of Commissioners whose term had expired.

Last week, Bateman, Homestead’s former mayor, was convicted of two felony counts of illegal compensation and one misdemeanor count of illegal lobbying after he took a secret job as a consultant for a healthcare company that needed government approval to build a clinic in downtown Homestead.

A crowd of HHA clients and community members packed the HHA meeting room on Friday and Tuesday to speak in Hentschel’s defense, saying his tenure was marked by a willingness to work with outside social agencies and his open-door policy.

Marisol Aviles, a tenant at the federally subsidized Redlands Center, said Hentschel personally walked her through the tenant-application process.

“I just don’t know why they want him out if he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Aviles said after Friday’s meeting.

Rocío Tafur-Salgado, director of the local art and education nonprofit agency En Familia, told HHA commissioners Friday and Tuesday that she was shut down by previous HHA Director Edmund Carrera when she asked to work with the authority.

When she came back to see Hentschel, she said, he offered her a space on HHA properties at a discounted rate, which allowed her to offer the community and HHA clients access to English-language classes, a GED program, domestic-violence counseling and a soccer program.

HHA commissioner Carmen Rodriguez cast the vote against Hentschel’s termination, saying she wanted to know exactly why his job was on the line.

“If there’s any malfeasance, let’s talk about it,” she said.

Hentschel would not comment for this story.

Commissioner Russell Black was absent on Friday. He was present Tuesday, and told the crowd that while he would not have voted to fire Hentschel, “It happened, and now we need to move on.”

Audelia Martinez, a commissioner since September 2010, was not reappointed to the board by Porter after her term expired Sept. 21, and so was not present and did not vote Friday.

Recently retired Miami-Dade Public Schools migrant-education director Cipriano Garza — a former farm laborer — read a statement Tuesday demanding that the board “better embody the spirit of ... the Sunshine Law,” and accused HHA commissioner Lois Jones — a longtime critic of Hentschel’s — of using her personal email account to conduct HHA business.

Jones responded after the meetings that she had always used her personal email — but that this was known and not an attempt to make it difficult for the public to request records.

“They [the HHA] have an email system that I can’t negotiate,” she said. “I’ve even asked somebody who works [at the HHA] to help me, and they couldn’t figure it out.”

In his statement, Garza also requested all correspondence written to and from Jones pertaining to HHA business, and all correspondence written to and from Nelson and Associates, the outside management firm that oversees the HHA’s federally subsidized properties.

Hentschel joined the housing authority in March 2011, and his tenure was controversial from the start. Jones loudly criticized her fellow commissioners’ decision to appoint him over 23 other candidates who had public-housing experience. She also took issue with the $20,000 raise he was granted within months of his hire, and the $1,500 personal loan he took out from the authority.

Jones filed a complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission against then-HHA commissioner David Berrones for voting to appoint Hentschel while the two were technically partners in a real estate investment company called Xcaret Group. The ethics commission investigated, and ruled that since the company was not active at the time of the vote — Xcaret had, in fact, never entered into a contract, opened a bank account or declared a profit — that Berrones and Hentschel were business associates in name only, and that no violation had occurred.

The HHA also was slapped with a sexual harassment, retaliation and negligence lawsuit in late 2012 by a former HHA employee alleging that Hentschel sexually harassed her, that she was fired for complaining to the board about it, and that the board was negligent in not removing Hentschel.

The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Under Hentschel, the HHA also drew controversy when Legal Services of Greater Miami told the authority in October 2012 that it had violated federal rules when it changed certain rules in its Section 8 voucher program for choosing recipients.

Since late last year, Hentschel had been trying to wrest back management of about 300 units of federally subsidized farm-worker housing from a third party company that the HHA was forced to hire in 2012 in the wake of a blistering report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that detailed chronic mismanagement of the properties.

Most of the cited problems existed prior to Hentschel’s tenure, and he received an informal go-ahead from Michael Botelho, the USDA area director at the time, to manage the units.

The USDA removed Botelho as area director in February, but its officials would not explain the decision. Botelho’s successor, Angela Prioleau, put the brakes on self-management for the HHA, warning Hentschel in March that he had never formally applied to self-manage the units or obtained approval.

The USDA contended Hentschel lacked the experience required to run the federally funded housing projects. He maintained that he was qualified thanks to his experience as HHA director.

According to commissioners’ discussions at Tuesday’s meeting, at the time of his firing Hentschel was paid $139,000 a year. He also had an authority credit card, gas card, smartphone and a five-door BMW X3.

Office coordinator Brandy Ramirez told the board Tuesday that the previous commissioners in 2013 approved $40,000 for the purchase of a car for Hentschel.

Commissioner Goodman responded that it “definitely rubs me the wrong way that a housing authority that serves the underprivileged would give its executive director a Beemer.”

The board voted to approve raising White’s salary to $99,000, in line with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pay scales, and to give him the same compensation package as Hentschel — with the understanding that the HHA would look into trading in the BMW for a more appropriately priced vehicle.

Saying they needed to research the new cap on severance packages, commissioners voted to postpone a decision about Hentschel’s severance.