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Great Barrington Holds Rare Hearing On Allegations Against Housing Authority Chair

karen_smith_hearing.jpg
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Great Barrington Housing Authority Chairperson Karen Smith - who sits on a number of town boards and committees - addresses allegations of abusive behavior made against her to the town selectboard at a special meeting.

The Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard held a special meeting Wednesday night over two requests to remove a member of the town’s housing authority.

The Clair Teague Senior Center hosted an emotional and rare tribunal of sorts. The meeting was to address a pair of complaints lodged against the chairperson of the housing authority: Karen Smith. Attorney David Doneski, representing the town, presented them.

“There’s a letter that’s dated November 5, 2018, from the vice chair of the tenant’s association, Marlene Koloski, and a letter from a former administrative assistant of the housing authority, Michelle Loubert, that’s dated November 13, 2018,” said Doneski.

Koloski’s letter claimed to speak for the 177 tenants of Flag Rock Village, a 112-unit senior, disabled, and low-income housing complex managed by the Great Barrington Housing Authority. Koloski and three witnesses said since being appointed to the board in October 2017, Smith has brought a culture of bullying and fear to the lives of tenants and housing authority board members alike. Charges against Smith ranged from nepotism to corruption. Koloski described her behavior as “scary.”

“Karen’s been on the board a little over a year and it’s been so chaotic, so up and down, you never know what’s going to happen when she comes," she told the selectboard. "And I think for the elderly, they need protection. There is two complaints with elder protective service. I’m not privy, of course, as to what’s going on with that, but these tenants shouldn’t have to live this way. Some people, that’s their last stop in life there.”

One claim was that Smith had slammed the door in the face of a senior resident.

“You can’t treat people like this at the housing, it's not fair. Especially to the elderly," said Koloski. "Because the lady she slammed the door on has come out of her apartment twice since that happened.”

She also claimed that selectboard chair Stephen Bannon had delayed the process by not contacting Jack Cooper, Executive Director of MASS Union of Public Housing Tenants, as promised when tenant complaints were first registered.

“It never happened," said Koloski. "Three weeks later, of course, I find out and I call – I got the law, and I brought it to the town hall. Otherwise I think this would have been already – had a hearing on it.”

“I understand Karen can have a lot of character references, because she deserves them and she’s done a lot of good things, and I do admit to that," said Flag Rock resident Jane Green. "But they haven’t got a clue about what we do or how our lives are and how they’ve been affected. She can be the greatest person in the world if she hasn’t bullied them. If I hadn’t been witness to a couple of things, I would have been sitting over there with her.”

Green said Smith’s alleged abusive behavior had forced the former Executive Director of the Housing Authory – Vera Cartier – to resign in October. The popular leader’s departure was repeatedly laid at the feet of Smith over the course of the meeting. Green cited what she heard at a Housing Authority board meeting.

“I was in the lady’s room," Green told the selectboard. "I heard Karen screaming at the top of her lungs at Vera in front of a few of the tenants. There was the banging on the table and a door slammed. I couldn’t believe it.”

Jackie Sinico, another Housing Authority board member, said Smith called her in a rage and expressed her desire to fire Cartier.

“Three or four times I went to the office to see Vera and either found her in tears or visibly upset because Karen had been in there yelling at her or she was going to be coming in and she was nervous about that,” said Sinico. She witnessed Smith fly into a rage at Cartier over confusion regarding tape recording a board meeting. “And at the end of the meeting, when Karen turned that one, is when she went into her rage to Vera," Sinico continued. "It was ugly, she was screaming. There were four witnesses there, and it was absolutely unnecessary.”

A tenant association member said the selectboard needed to fully understand the circumstances that led people to a community like Flag Rock to understand why Smith was the wrong chairperson for the board.

“For me, it was a terrible divorce and a terrible accident, and I lost everything. And that’s why I’m there," said Shannon Sinico. "And the people up there really need somebody who's compassionate.”

Sinico is Jackie’s daughter. She said while she knew Smith and liked her, her temperament was inappropriate for the Housing Authority.

“There’s elderly people – this is where they’re going to be until they die," she told the selectboard. "And it needs to not be hostile.”

Tenants in the audience applauded the testimony against Smith.

After Koloski’s presentation, the second complainant approached the mic.

“My name is Michelle Loubert," she said to the selectboard. "For the record, I am a former employee of the Great Barrington Housing Authority, a town finance committee member, as well as a member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District Next Steps Committee.”

The meat of her testimony concerned an altercation with Smith after the October 30th Housing Authority meeting. She said it was the “last straw in a long pattern of disrespect and intimidation” shown to her by Smith, and emerged from a dispute over Smith refusing to share the resume of a recent hire.

“Ms. Smith became extremely angry, exited the office, and entered the hallway," said Loubert. "With the press present, Ms. Smith moved towards me, forcing me up against the hallway wall. She came very close to my face and shouted that the reason the GBHA was in such a mess was because of my job performance.”

Loubert – who quit her position in May – said reporters who witnessed the incident were told not to testify at the meeting by their employers at the Berkshire Eagle and the Berkshire Record.

Jim Mercer, vice-chair of the GBHA, was the first to speak in Smith’s defense. Denying claims of bullying, he applauded her “honest, straightforward” approach and years of service to the town on a variety of boards and committees.

“There was a vacuum a year ago at the housing authority, there was a weak board, everything was in disarray, things weren’t getting done, there was maintenance issues, a lot of ongoing issues that had been unaddressed," said Mercer. "When Karen came on the board and we appointed her as chair, she’s very task orientated. She’s asked to do something, she gets it done.”

He disputed Loubert’s description of her encounter with Smith in the hallway, saying while he heard Loubert say 'don’t assault me' to Smith, he saw no contact.

Smith defended herself by saying that she had entered the position at the housing authority as it lay in shambles, with poorly reported finances and a lack of leadership. She said her job wasn’t to maintain relationships with tenants, but to secure the future of the institution.

“The board for the Housing Authority is responsible to ensure that policies, procedures, and long-term financial viability is maintained for that facility so that is it not only there for the people that are there now but the people who may need it in the future,” Smith told the selectboard.

Smith, who is identified on the Great Barrington town website as the chair of its Parks and Recreation committee and a parks commission member on the Community Preservation Committee, was represented by attorney Rich Dohoney. She didn’t deny her actions toward Cartier.

“Was my behavior outlandish at the point where I screamed at Vera? You bet," Smith  Not the substance, but the tone. I went back the next day, I apologized, I told her I was sorry. And that was in June. The only time I start to hear about things is in the beginning of November.”

She “categorically denied” Loubert’s testimony about the heated hallway conversation, pointing to the presence of the two reporters.

“My suggestion to this board is, if I had assaulted her – maybe not the Eagle, but the Record would have had it as a front-page piece of news," said Smith. "And it wasn’t.”

The town’s leadership claimed they were limited by the law and anxious about removing an elected official from office with an election due in six months. The final vote was against removing Smith from her role, despite some of their own experiences with her that corroborated claims about her behavior.

“I have been bullied by Ms. Smith in the course of a board that we both sat on, and it is unpleasant, and I have seen at other boards – I would hope there’s a change in behavior, but I don’t know that that rises to something we can take her off a board for, an elected board,” said selectboard member Ed Abrahams.

The decision left Koloski frustrated.

“She bullies everybody in this town. Either people are afraid of her or they suck up to her to be her friend so she don’t get ‘em,” she told WAMC.

“I think it’s very interesting that the timing of all this started when we got the deficiency notice from the state," said Smith. She said the move against her from the tenants came from the reality that Cartier had mismanaged Flag Rock. “And I did make a list. And it’s like, you’ve got to get this done, you’ve got to get this done, you’ve got to get this done. And then we did a performance review, and that’s when it really hit, because the tenants were upset because they like Vera. I liked her!" Smith told WAMC. "But liking somebody doesn’t mean that you keep them in employ.”

Both sides of the dispute told WAMC that they embraced the selectboard’s proposal for a mediated meeting between the two parties.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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