YOU CAN’T turn around in Chelsea today without bumping into an auditor. But during much of the last decade, former Chelsea Housing Authority chief Michael E. McLaughlin disguised most of his obscenely high pay from state and federal housing officials and peeled off $40,000 in authority funds to pay off a sexual harassment claim. And no one was the wiser.
McLaughlin was a creature of a clueless — or worse — board that put him in office in 2000 over the strenuous objections of Guy Santagate, the former Chelsea city manager. Santagate beseeched the five-member board - the majority of whom he had appointed - to steer clear of McLaughlin. He had a slam dunk argument. Why would a small city with a history of City Hall and police corruption so great that it was just a few years removed from state receivership take a chance on McLaughlin - a shadowy former county commissioner who had been linked by wiretap to a convicted mobster?
“He’s the last guy in the world you need in Chelsea,’’ Santagate recalls telling the housing authority board. But the appointment sailed through. Someone, Santagate figured, had gotten to the members.
“It was like a shadow,’’ he said.
The latest incarnation of the housing authority board, appointed mostly by current city manager Jay Ash, continued in the same dismal tradition. The board routinely approved outlandish pay hikes for McLaughlin, who resigned after the Globe exposed his $360,000 annual salary for doing a job worth - maybe - a fourth as much. The board resigned too, but not before placing a McLaughlin underling in the post. Meanwhile, the FBI is probing how McLaughlin tried to grab another $200,000 on the way out the door courtesy of a paper-shredding colleague.
Enough, already. The Chelsea Housing Authority doesn’t need a new board of commissioners. Chelsea doesn’t even need a housing authority. State law allows for regionalization of public housing authorities. The best solution would be to fold the management of Chelsea’s 850 units of public housing and 600 subsidized rental certificates into Boston’s 26,000-unit portfolio.
Bill McGonagle, the competent head of Boston’s public housing authority, earns $136,000 annually - about a quarter of a million dollars less than what McLaughlin was raking in. State and federal housing officials should offer the Boston Housing Authority a reasonable sum to manage the properties in Chelsea. Boston officials could probably do it in their sleep. The Bunker Hill project alone - just over the Tobin bridge in Charlestown - has more units than all the project apartments in Chelsea combined.
For now, a judge has placed the Chelsea Housing Authority into state receivership. Boston knows a thing or two about that, too. Its housing authority was in shambles in 1980 when the late Judge Paul Garrity placed it into receivership.
“If the BHA were a private landlord,’’ Garrity said then, “it surely would have been driven out of business long ago, or its board jailed, or most likely both.’’
One of the conditions for coming out of receivership several years later was the eradication of the Boston Housing Authority’s board. What was needed then in Boston - and now in Chelsea - was a clear line of accountability between the housing authority director and an honest mayor or city manager who sets the director’s salary.
But Chelsea city manager Jay Ash said he doesn’t want that responsibility. He and state housing officials are counting the days before a new board can be appointed for the housing agency. Officials estimate it will take the receiver about 90 days to sort through the authority’s finances, evaluate the new director, and establish a system of checks and balances.
Ash takes offense at any suggestion that he would be better off if state law actually allowed him to seek board candidates from outside Chelsea. He’s tired of the aspersions cast at his city. But it will be hard to erase the history of corruption in a city where everything from police protection to development rights required cash payoffs to public officials. Does the city really want to take another risk on a housing board after the miserable performance of prior ones?
Ash said he has identified potential candidates living in Chelsea who possess the kinds of legal, budget, and property management skills suited to the housing board.
Forget it, Jay. It’s Chelsea.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.