Head of Great Barrington Housing Authority board stays in post, despite bullying claims

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Despite allegations of bullying, Karen Smith will remain head of the Great Barrington Housing Authority board.

At a hearing on Wednesday, the Select Board voted unanimously to reject a call for her removal, noting that the complaints about Smith's behavior weren't sufficient to warrant a vote to remove her.

To take such action, members said, the board would need evidence that she was neglecting her duties or violating a town bylaw or regulation.

"I've seen it on other boards and I'd hoped for change, but I don't think this rises to something to take her off the board over," said Select Board Vice Chairman Edward Abrahams, who noted he also has experienced her bullying.

Still, some board members were uneasy with the decision and one board member suggested while the Select Board was not the right body to remove Smith, the authority board should consider electing a new chair.

The Housing Authority oversees 112 rental units across three complexes: Flag Rock in Housatonic, Brookline in Great Barrington and Dewey Court in Sheffield. Smith has been accused of being aggressive in her dealings with tenants as well as staff — and leadership — of the authority.

Smith faced two complaints during Wednesday night's hearing at the Senior Center, which was attended by about 45 people. The first was filed by the Tenants Association, alleging Smith had bullied residents and the former executive director. And Michelle Loubert, who served as administrative assistant to the authority from November 2017 through May 2018, alleged Smith backed her up against a wall after a Housing Authority meeting in October. Smith denied any wrongdoing and said her management style is frank, but that there's nothing wrong with that.

"Is my [management] style perfect? Absolutely not, but I am direct and I will not apologize for it," she said.

And she acknowledged she had a tense conversation with Abrahams while the two were on the Community Preservation Act Committee, but denied bullying him.

Following the meeting, Smith said she was pleased with the Select Board's decision and is seeking ways to mend the divide between the authority and tenants.

"We need to move forward, fix what's broken and keep what's not," she said.

Complaints

The hearing lasted about an hour and a half, and featured testimony from tenants, Housing Authority board members, Smith and Loubert. Housing Authority board member James Mercer testified on behalf of Smith and board member Jacqueline Sinico testified on behalf of the Tenants Association.

Marlene Koloski, vice chairwoman of the Tenants Association, said Smith had crossed a line in June when she slammed her hands on a table and yelled at former Executive Director Vera Cartier following a Housing Authority meeting. She also said Smith had "slammed" the Housing Authority office door in the face of an elderly woman in a walker, who was asking to speak with Cartier.

Koloski tried to submit a petition seeking Smith's removal that she said was signed by Housing Authority residents. Smith's lawyer, Rich Dohoney, successfully argued that the petition was new evidence and could not be admitted at the hearing. Town counsel was also present, but neither the Tenants Association nor Loubert had an attorney.

Still, residents got their point across: "We don't want [Smith] in charge of decisions that are going to impact the last months and years of our lives," said Flag Rock resident Jane Green, who testified at the hearing.

Smith admitted to slamming her hands and yelling at Cartier. She said she was frustrated that, for the second time, Cartier had failed to audio record a meeting of the Housing Authority board for the public record. Smith said she later apologized to Cartier.

"I listened to 30 seconds of dead air and yes, I was upset," Smith said. "My interaction with Vera is not one I'd like to repeat."

The exchange with the woman in the walker was overexaggerated, Smith said. She didn't slam a door in the woman's face, but did tell the resident she could not enter the office because Smith and Cartier were in the middle of a meeting.

"She was standing 3 feet back from the door with a walker and I said you can come back in a half an hour," Smith said.

In Loubert's complaint, the former Housing Authority employee said that following a board meeting, she had a quick altercation with Smith outside the authority's office. Loubert was advocating for the release of a public document, while Smith and Mercer wanted to delay the release of information until the newly appointed interim executive director had an opportunity to inform her employer.

Loubert alleged that Smith backed her against a wall and yelled something about there being problems at the Housing Authority when Loubert worked there, too. Then Smith left the building. The document was released later that day.

"I didn't say she assaulted me," Loubert said. "I said she backed me against the wall."

Smith said she never touched Loubert.

"I used direct language, but I didn't push her," Smith said.

Koloski, the association vice chairwoman, said the Select Board's decisions was disappointing.

"Ed Abrahams said she's bullied him. They all know she's a bully, but they're not going to do anything about it," Koloski said.

After the vote Select Board member Daniel Bailly said the board should reorganize.

"Is it possible to take a vote to remove Karen as chair?" he said. "That's my suggestion to, at your next meeting, I feel strongly that Karen is not doing her job."

Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said he wasn't comfortable with the board's decision Wednesday night, but that it was the right one to make.

"I'm not apologizing for how I vote, but I don't feel comfortable with all the issues brought up in these proceedings," he said. "I don't want to send the message that the Board of Selectmen condones bullying."

He said the Housing Authority and tenants should find someone to moderate community forum to air grievances and devise a way to move on from the "toxic" atmosphere.

"This is no way to live," he said.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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