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County puts housing authority official in the hot seat

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners Court is on the verge of pushing out a top local affordable housing official over thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenditures.

The court voted unanimously on Tuesday to send a letter to Melvin Wrenn, chair of the Housing Authority of Travis County board of commissioners, to let him know that the court would be considering his removal at its meeting next week.

The move was precipitated by a report from the county Auditor’s Office that revealed Wrenn owes $4,601 in outstanding travel advances dating back to 2011.

The report also found that Strategic Housing Finance Corporation President Willie Anderson has an unreconciled travel debt of $6,972. According to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Anderson – who is also a resident of housing financed by the housing authority and the Strategic Housing Finance Corporation – has tendered her resignation from the board.

Eckhardt emphasized that she did not consider the matters to be a troubling indication of affairs at the organizations.

“I believe that the two organizations are on quite good footing right now, but we are engaged in a look backward in order to establish new procedures,” Eckhardt explained.

Indeed, both groups are emerging from a period of relative instability after the appointment this summer of new housing authority Executive Director Patrick Howard. Before that, Wrenn had served as the interim executive director for almost a full year without receiving any compensation.

According to established policy, staff and board members from both organizations are allowed to borrow a travel allowance for business-related travel. The policy states that those debts must be reconciled within 90 days of the individual’s return.

Eckhardt said she asked the county auditor to look into the matter after receiving an anonymous tip last year.

Underscoring what Eckhardt characterized as a cooperative effort between the Auditor’s Office and the organizations, County Auditor Nicki Riley said she’s helping the housing authority craft a new policy regarding travel advances, which could include doing away with them altogether.

Eckhardt said that Anderson offered to pay back her outstanding debt through future in-kind volunteer work on behalf of the organizations. However, as Commissioner Brigid Shea noted, that may not be possible under rules set by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides funds to both organizations.

In a letter addressed to Eckhardt and the commissioners dated on Monday, Feb. 23, Wrenn vigorously defended both himself and Anderson. He said that all the travel he embarked upon during his tenure as executive director – which lasted many months longer than expected – was geared toward training and education. He also assured the court that he is going through all of his financial records to correct any outstanding balances.

“I will also submit payments as required to eliminate any discrepancy,” Wrenn wrote. “Based upon my time spent working at the housing authority where I saved over $150,000 that it would have paid an executive director, I in no way want to harm or give the appearance of any wrongdoing, as seems to be indicated in the Travis County Auditor’s Report.”

During Tuesday’s discussion, Eckhardt proposed that the court revoke Wrenn’s appointment. Commissioner Ron Davis insisted on delaying that action for one week in order to give Wrenn the chance to speak for himself in front of the court. Allowing that request, Shea made the motion to send a letter to Wrenn expressing the court’s intent. That motion was seconded by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty before receiving the court’s unanimous consent.

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