Carol Lamont, the manager of East Palo Alto's rent-control program, tendered her resignation March 12, after the City Manager's office commissioned an audit of her program that many rent-board members and the City Council did not even know about.
Without directly relating her resignation to the audit, Lamont told the board that May 10 would be her last day. But she told the Weekly on Wednesday that her written response to the audit summed up why she is departing.
"I was very explicit in stating my reasons in my response to the review of the rent-stabilization program that the city manager has conducted by a consultant," she said.
The City Manager's office referred a request for Lamont's response to the City Attorney for review.
Lamont's resignation, and the discovery that City Manager Magda Gonzalez had commissioned the audit without other city officials' knowledge, surprised and dismayed some board members and council members. Lamont is highly qualified for her job, they said.
The consultant, Nadine Levin of Municipal Resource Group in Wilton, Calif., was hired for a high-level review of the program's efficiency and effectiveness and its financial structure.
The audit does not show anything illegal on Lamont's part, but the consultant was critical of Lamont, who is not directly named in the 16-page report but is identified as the program administrator.
The city's rent ordinance was established in 1988 to protect tenants from unreasonable rent increases, arbitrary, discriminatory or retaliatory evictions and to assure landlords the right to a fair return, according to the city's website. The program allows tenants who live in neglected, hazardous or unsanitary conditions to petition the board, and for landlords to also file petitions regarding disputes and evictions.
Perhaps the most stinging criticism of Lamont accuses her of "a perceived lack of neutrality" in working with landlords.
The consultant interviewed landlords and tenants, and tenants found the program's services "very good." But landlords perceived inconsistent treatment and delays by program staff in providing information, such as tenant petitions. The result was that the tenant had to wait for resolution to the problem.
Some landlords said they felt the administration did not tell the tenant to contact the landlord first regarding complaints, but instead told the tenant to file a petition or directly report the landlord to regulatory agencies without giving the landlord an opportunity to respond.
City Council member Ruben Abrica said he wants to know about the audit's methodology. The auditor interviewed only 15 persons, including rent stabilization board members, city attorneys, tenant legal-assistance organizations, program staff, landlords, tenants and the city manager -- leaving some question as to the depth of the responses.
Abrica and some rent-board members questioned why they weren't asked to review the contract and weren't privvy to how much the consultant was paid, he said.
"Fifteen years ago, there was a review of the program. It was all above-board, and the rent board knew what was going on. This all came out of nowhere. East Palo Alto is not such a huge bureaucracy that the city manager could not communicate to the council and the board," he said.
The audit recommends achieving better financial health for the program, whose expenses exceeded revenue by $152,000 or 27 percent, according to a preliminary fiscal year 2012-13 budget. The program has a projected deficit of $107,000 or 18.6 percent for the adopted fiscal year 2013-14 budget. The program is funded by annual fees. East Palo Alto's program has 2,325 regulated units and a $717,000 budget.
The city should also establish specific guidelines for the administrator's role so that she understands who is her supervisor and the limits of her job, the report notes.
But staff, and in particular the administrator, may also have too-heavy a workload.
Lamont's announcement of her departure has stunned rent board members, who praise her work as exemplary.
"Nobody but Carol could have gotten this program going the way she has," board member Midge Dorn said. "It's going to be very difficult to find somebody else to step into her shoes."
In light of Lamont's resignation, Dorn raised doubts about the city manager's supervision of the program.
"It would be better if the program was being supervised by the city attorney. It's a law that was passed, and the city attorney should oversee it, not the city manager, because her job is to handle policy and not law," she said.
The city manager has not come to any board meetings, but the city attorney regularly helps the board. The audit is a public document, and it should have been released, she added.
Gonzalez did not return a request for comment.
Board member Shryee Randolph, one of two members interviewed for the audit, said she supports Lamont.
"I feel like Carol is a very dedicated, hardworking person. She cares about the community and she is doing a good job. She's very professional. Even if you talk to landlords, she tries to work with them and she tries to be fair," she said.
Randolph said the audit interview took about five minutes and the interviewer only asked a few minor questions.
"I told (the interviewer) the same thing I'm telling you," she said.
"If we lose (Lamont), the rent stabilization board would suffer so much," she added. "The City of East Palo Alto needs the rent board and someone who cares about the people in this community. Carol loves the people of this community. I'm not sure she wants to go. There may be something going on that she feels she has to leave. Maybe she can't work under certain conditions."