CAIRO – Mayor Tyrone Coleman on Thursday called for the resignation of the Alexander County Housing Authority board chairman and another member, as well as the release of the top 10 applicants for the position of executive director for the housing authority.

The mayor’s statements come about a week after board Chairman Andy Clarke announced that a majority of the board, by consensus, had tentatively chosen Sesser Mayor Jason Ashmore as its next executive director.

Coleman said he knows that another applicant from Cairo with extensive experience in housing also had applied, but wasn’t one of four candidates called for an interview. Clarke maintains that Ashmore was the most qualified of all the candidates. He said he believes the person to which Coleman refers was not qualified, and “they may not know her past." No one has publicly stated the name of the applicant, and so the newspaper is not naming her at this time, but people on both sides of the debate are referring to the same person.

Clarke said he would only release names of the other applicants if it’s determined that would not be a violation of personnel privacy rights for people who were not selected.

As for the mayor’s call for his resignation, Clarke said he would not dignify that with a response. Coleman also called for the resignation of board member Monica Smith, who could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

“There are people from this community who are qualified who have worked in that profession, in housing, and who have applied,” Coleman said after Thursday’s press conference. “They should have had a shot at it, and I’m just tired of seeing people coming in from the outside and we just overlook people here.”

Special board meeting called 

The housing authority’s board has a special meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday in Cairo. The only item on the agenda is to “approve or disapprove hiring of Jason Ashmore as executive director.”

The board is planning on taking a vote on Ashmore’s hiring even though a HUD executive has rejected the hiring of Ashmore. Maurice McGough, the Region V director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, must agree to the choice for executive director before the board makes a final offer to a candidate.

That's required under the terms of a voluntary compliance agreement entered into between the housing authority board and HUD to resolve findings that the housing authority, on multiple occasions, violated civil rights laws with discriminatory practices in housing and hiring of African-Americans. 

McGough, in a letter to Clarke dated Jan. 8, declined to accept the selection of Ashmore, saying the chosen candidate should live within Alexander County, and be able to demonstrate technical expertise in affordable housing programs. He directed the housing authority to consider the other applicants. “I expect that you will complete this process by the end of the calendar month,” the letter stated.

Ashmore planned to commute from Sesser, and retain his position as mayor. He has never worked in housing.

Federal funds at stake 

McGough noted that the housing authority faces unique challenges, including that HUD has listed its status as “troubled” and that it is in violation of “various civil rights laws.” Under terms of the compliance agreements, failure to follow the agreements could result in the denial of federal funds for the housing authority, and other remedy measures that could include appointment of a third-party receiver to administer the housing authority.

Clarke said he’s aware of the stipulations of the agreements, and voted for them under duress because HUD was otherwise going to pull all funds. But even knowing the ramifications of defying HUD and hiring Ashmore anyway, Clarke said it’s about doing the right thing and he’s willing to “let the dice roll.”

Clarke said he didn’t know if the votes were there to hire Ashmore in the wake of HUD’s denial letter, but that he would lobby board members to do so at Tuesday's meeting. 

Though Ashmore lacks experience in housing, Clarke said what he brings to the table in financial and management know-how in a government setting is more valuable, and he believes Ashmore would quickly pick up on housing rules and regulations.

Ashmore most recently worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation at its Carbondale location, and was the assistant to the regional engineer. He was let go in February, after Gov. Bruce Rauner came into position. He has been without full-time employment since then, but said that's because he wanted to focus on his mayoral duties. 

Cairo Councilwoman Constance Williams, who attended Thursday’s news conference with the mayor, said she doesn't think Ashmore is a good fit. “We want someone who knows Cairo, who has a vested interest in seeing things done, not somebody who’s coming in for money,” she said. “Anybody can do that.”

Ashmore: It's not about money 

Ashmore said that he is not motivated by money when it comes to this job. The advertisement for the position states it would pay between $65,000 and $75,000. Ashmore said that’s not enough money to make him want a job he isn’t truly passionate about.

“If I was only doing it for the money, that’s not enough money to do it for,” Ashmore said, noting he also has other offers for jobs awaiting him, but this was his top choice. “I’d really like an answer to move forward one way or another.”

The housing authority has been without a full-time executive director for more than a year.

The news conference at which Coleman spoke was at the location of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial at McBride Place, one of the housing authority’s apartment complexes at the center of the controversy. That complex and Elmwood Place, both of which are family housing developments that primarily house black residents and their children, are in the worst conditions, and may have to be torn down.

The mayor was flanked by about eight other African-American community leaders and activists as he read a two-page prepared statement, which was provided to the newspaper.

He asked Clarke and board member Monica Smith to resign stating it was “because of their deep social and political ties to James Wilson and because of their inability to properly represent the interest of tenants of the Alexander County Housing Authority.”

Coleman also said Clarke should have to answer to why he accepted more than $8,000 in travel voucher reimbursements from when he served previously on the board. Clarke previously stated that Wilson, the authority’s former longtime executive director who was in charge during much of the alleged mismanagement and misspending, was the one who handled reimbursements for travel, and he assumed Wilson understood the rules and how to allocate money for travel.

Those vouchers have been called into question because they employ an odd accounting practice of payments based on mileage, plus a standard deduction, even though the participant traveled by plane, and some travel reimbursements appeared to be duplicative in nature, based on an extensive view of records by the newspaper documented in a story published in September. 

Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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