Members of the East Palo Alto's Rent Stabilization Board on Wednesday lambasted an audit of the city's rent program as an "amateurish hatchet job" that was designed to undermine the program and its chief administrator, Carol Lamont.
The report, which was contracted by City Manager Magda Gonzalez as part of an audit of four city programs, cast Lamont in an unfavorable light. Lamont was praised by tenants, but landlords interviewed for the audit cited bias and complained that paperwork was not processed in a timely manner, according to the report. But it also noted that she is one of only two employees administering a complex and burdensome program. The rent stabilization program protects renters against poor living conditions, retaliation and skyrocketing rent increases.
Lamont, a longtime housing professional who worked for the San Francisco Foundation and on federal Housing and Urban Development programs, is resigning on May 10 because of the audit. She fired back at Gonzalez at Wednesday's meeting.
"This so-called audit of the rent-stabilization program is for me the last straw," she said. "I am leaving the city because of what I see to be a failure of my supervisor to respect the City of East Palo Alto's rent-stabilization ordinance and the importance of its implementation for the residents of this city.
"I have questioned the direction I have been given by the city manager while adhering as best I can to the directions given. For me it became an ethical issue, especially when I was told not to refer residents for building inspections regardless of the health and safety and habitability problems that their landlord had failed to correct. It was also problematic to be told not to assist tenants with their attempts to reach compliance with the ordinance when I work every day with landlords to assist them in complying, including filing petitions," she said.
Board members said they had that policy changed after they became aware it was occurring. Gonzalez could not be reached for comment for her perspective on Lamont's allegations.
Board member Midge Dorn said she was troubled by the dearth of statistics to back up the audit's findings.
Maureen Larsson, another board member, had harsher words: "This amateurish hatchet job is actually laughable."
The landlords who were critical of the staff were not identified in the report, making it impossible to evaluate how many of them were interviewed (the consultant interviewed 15 people total for the audit) or the basis for their comments.
Consultant Nadine Levin of Municipal Resource Group was paid $10,000 to audit four items: fiscal year 2013-2014 budget preparation, the city's Youth and Families program, the Rent Stabilization Program and assistant city manager functions and duties. The $2,500 allocated to evaluate the rent program is "not a lot of money to evaluate a program that has the breadth and depth of this program," Larsson said.
Gonzalez was not present at the meeting, but she said in a March 24 letter to the City Council that she has been reviewing and assessing a number of city operations and programs to identify areas that need improvement.
"When I joined the organization in October 2012, I quickly became aware of a general organization-wide lack of consistency and application of best practices in processes, policies and systems," she wrote. She identified the rent stabilization program within her first couple of weeks as requiring attention, she said.
"My goal in conducting any review is to ensure we are making the best use of our limited resources to find ways to support staff so that they can work smarter -- not harder, and to implement best practices for a more efficient and effective way to deliver quality services," she said.
Since the report is an operational review and not a policy item, it would not be formally presented to the council or rent board, she said. She provided a copy to both entities on March 19.
Rent board members said they were not notified of the audit, which is a departure from past audits, such as one conducted in 2008. That report was peer-to-peer, and the board and city council were kept informed, members said.
Several housing lawyers from the Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto praised Lamont's work and their dealings with her since 2011.
"In my experience, she has always been the consummate professional. This is a real loss for the community," lawyer Larissa Bowman said.
Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a statewide fair-housing advocacy group, said the city would not find a replacement of Lamont's stature.
"This is an impossible undertaking with a staff of two. You are not going to find a competent person willing to do this job unless their motivation is something less than implementing this ordinance," he said.
Board members voted 5-0 Wednesday night in favor of crafting a response to the audit, with board member Goolrukh Vakil abstaining.